Have you ever wondered why we need to countersign checks?

Not long ago I walked into the bank and transacted some business that involved my having to write out a check to cash. When I proffered the check the teller insisted that I sign the back. I did so, and asked why it was necessary to do so.

Her reply went something like this: “You have to sign the back so we can compare the signature with the one on the front. That’s a security precaution for your safety.”

Her statement – which had all of the hallmarks of a scripted reply given without any conscious thought – left much to be desired, but since my business was now complete I saw no point in having in argument with her. I left the building, ruminating on the words and their meaning.

The holes started to appear almost immediately. First of all, I had signed the front of the check in her presence. I was then asked to countersign the back. Well surprise, surprise – they matched! Hurrah!

Secondly, I was never asked to produce any other ID, like a bank card, that would match the name with a signature, I really could have been anybody – even with her “security precautions “.

Thirdly, if a bank on asks me to countersign a check that someone else has made out to me, then the two signatures will obviously be different.

The practice of countersigning checks is still commonly practiced in the U.S.. However, I do not recall ever having been asked to countersign a check during the thirtysomething years that I lived in England. This is especially ironic in view of the fact that I view the banking industry in England to be amazingly primitive in most other respects.

My attempts to find out more information on the subject have been fruitless, and I am therefore reduced to a couple of educated guesses:

One possibility is that this is a throwback to the days when banks used signature cards. Your signature was compared to a card that had a known good signature in order to confirm your identity. Another possibility is that the Bank requires a signature as part of an audit trail in the event of a check fraud. These are just guesses, however and could be completely wrong. Either way, I have come to the conclusion that this is one of those practices so rooted in antiquities that it has lost its meaning and nobody knows why we do it.

In a word, tradition.

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