Paying credit card bills with money orders

Today's post is about an issue that I've found causes the occasional misunderstanding in the travel hacking community.

Some banks are (rightly) suspicious of large money order deposits

If you've ever searched Craigslist for a job, you've no doubt come across exciting opportunities in the field of check-kiting. How this scam typically works is that you'll receive a bundle of money orders, which you are instructed to take to your own bank to deposit.

Banks are required to make the funds available within a certain number of days, whether or not the funds have in fact been made available by the bank against which the check is drawn. Once the funds become available to you within the statutory period, you're instructed to wire the funds back to your "employer," deducting a certain percentage to cover your own time and expenses, of course.

When your bank discovers the money orders are fraudulent, they deduct the entire sum from your checking account and hold you responsible for the money.

Besides being aware and wary of the above scam, banks may also be suspicious of customers who conduct large transactions in cash-equivalents like money orders. The larger the bank, the more likely they are to be unwilling to humor customers who insist on depositing vast sums of untraceable funds. That's one reason why one of the most valuable resources any travel hacker can draw on is an accommodating local bank or credit union.

Paying credit cards with money orders is no big deal

I've recited the above well-known facts because, not unreasonably, many people seem to think that the implication is that money orders are inherently suspicious. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

If you have local branches of the banks that issue your credit cards, they will be happy to accept money orders as payments against your credit cards. For example, I have local branches of both Chase and US Bank:

  • In the case of US Bank, I simply hand my credit card and money orders made out to "US Bank" to the teller and ask to make a payment.
  • In the case of Chase, I make the money orders out to "Chase Card Services" (the payee on my Chase credit card bills) and fill out the light blue "payment" slip found at the customer island.

While I've read (occasional, rare) reports of Chase and US Bank checking accounts being closed for making a single large money order deposit, I make tens of thousands of dollars in payments against my credit cards every single month, all of which my clerks are invariably happy to process.

Distinguishing between deposits and payments

The essential thing to remember here is how the bank treats the two kinds of transactions:

  • Deposits into a checking account, made available within the statutory period, can be withdrawn as cash. If money orders turn out to be fraudulent, the bank is responsible for getting the money back from you — money you may no longer have access to.
  • Payments against a credit account, on the other hand, merely reduce the outstanding balance owed. If your money orders turn out the fraudulent, the bank will versus the payment and charge a returned payment fee.

This different is key to understanding why, in general, payments against credit accounts pose a much lower risk to the banks than deposits into demand deposit accounts.

Warnings, cautions, etc., etc.

I make money order payments against my credit card accounts constantly, and my local bank branches are always happy to process them.

But as I'm fond of saying, I'm not a banker, and I'm especially not your banker. If banks in your area have been recently hit by fraudsters, they may be more cautious than necessary about money orders, regardless of the actual risk they incur by processing them.

So start slow, get to know your tellers, make sure they know what they're doing, and build relationships. Then stop worrying, and make any credit card payments you please using money orders.