Almost since the clock struck midnight on New Year’s Eve, Facebook memes and news organizations ranging from USA Today to CNN to local media outlets have been warning consumers not to abbreviate “2020” as “20” when signing the date on checks and legal documents. The idea is that a malefactor could write in two digits at the end and change the date. For example, it’s theoretically possible for a criminal to find someone’s uncashed 2020 check lying around next year and change the date from “1/1/20” to “1/1/2021,” thus allowing them to cash it in. Or if someone started paying off a debt with a check on 1/1/20, an unscrupulous creditor could modify the date to make it seem like the payback period started on “1/1/2019” and claim that the debtor missed a whole year of payments. While this sort of manipulation could have been possible with checks dated last year as well—for example, altering 1/1/19 to 1/1/1999—it probably would be harder for a criminal to try to claim that a check is 20 years older than it actually is.
But just because this is all possible doesn’t make it a particularly likely scam—and it certainly doesn’t explain the hubbub. There haven’t been any confirmed cases of this happening yet, and the scam would seem to only be useful in very specific and fairly unusual circumstances. Law enforcement agencies like the New York Police Department and Maine’s East Millinocket Police Department have been putting out notices about the hypothetical scenario. Social media has been abuzz with advisory memes spelling out how the scheme works. Several Slate staffers reported that their friends and family members have gravely warned them about the threat.
Ira Rheingold, executive director of the National Association of Consumer Advocates, has been quoted as an expert source in a number of news items about the date abbreviation scare, but told me that he’s puzzled by the amount of anxiety and fuss it’s caused. “There’s a lot of consumer fraud that goes on every day that I worry about a lot more than this,” he said, pointing to robocalls, account hacking, and mail scams. “It’s almost like a Y2K thing in some ways, where people are bent out of shape because our numbers are turning over.” Rheingold mentioned that he’s been getting a surprising number of press inquiries and radio interview requests for his commentary on this particular scam. George Moore, a contract lawyer who reposted a viral meme about the 2020 abbreviation risk on his firm’s Facebook page (he couldn’t remember where he initially found the image), also told me, “I’ve had police departments from across America, I’ve had people from Canada, contact me saying thanks.”
Though there may eventually be some cases of nefarious actors adding digits to checks, it won’t likely be a widespread problem for consumers and financial institutions. It’s not very common nowadays for scammers to tamper with numbers on checks in general. Checks themselves are also rapidly falling out of favor, with the rise of electronic payment methods. Still, as Rheingold points out, the types of people who still regularly use checks, like senior citizens, are often the most vulnerable to financial scams.
It’s unclear why exactly this theoretical date abbreviation scam has stoked so much concern, but Rheingold ventures that it has something to do with how easy it is to understand. Other forms of fraud, like payday lending and reverse mortgage scams, are more complex and don’t fit so neatly into a Facebook post. The fraud prevention measure for the date tampering scam is also a lot simpler—telling your friends to just write out “2020” is a quick and easy tip. Advising your friends on how to tell the difference between a valid and fraudulent IRS notice, on the other hand, takes a little more explaining.
In the end, though, some overexaggerated hype about check tampering probably won’t do much harm, and you should probably put in a little extra effort to write out 2020 in full, just to be safe. As Rheingold said, “It’s just an opportunity to warn people that they need to be careful, that they should keep copies of their contracts, that they make sure that anything they sign is filled out carefully, that they double-check their bank accounts. Those are all good things.”