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More and more retailers are no longer accepting personal checks

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

You know that sound of a check getting ripped out of a checkbook?

(SOUNDBITE OF PAPER RIPPING)

PFEIFFER: Actually, you probably don't if you were born after 1990.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

That's right. Checks are becoming increasingly rare. And the big retailer Target announced it'll stop accepting personal checks starting next week. That adds to a list of major businesses, such as Whole Foods, Aldi, Old Navy and Lululemon.

PFEIFFER: So, A, they still want our money, just not by check.

MARTÍNEZ: I know, right?

PFEIFFER: Professor Stephen Quinn at Texas Christian University says that's a big change.

STEPHEN QUINN: I'm old enough that I remember - yeah, you'd go to the grocery store, and everybody in line would mostly pay with check. There was some cash, but checks were far more convenient for everybody involved.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, before debit cards, Venmo and Apple Pay, checks dominated the scene. Now, for all you youngsters out there...

QUINN: A check is a piece of paper. And the person who writes it out - called the drawer 'cause they literally draw, if you will, the check - they have to write down the time, the date, the place, who they want paid, how much they want paid and then sign the check.

MARTÍNEZ: And by the way, you have to write the dollar amount two different ways - numerically and long-form.

PFEIFFER: Right. So for anyone who doesn't have experience with this, you write not just the digits, but you also have to spell out the words one hundred fifty-two dollars.

MARTÍNEZ: Oh, and for the cents, you have to add the whole fraction thing and 62/100.

PFEIFFER: (Laughter).

QUINN: Then they give that to the other person, and the other person will take that to their bank. Then their bank will take the check and present it to the original person - the payer's or the drawer's bank and get money for it.

PFEIFFER: The Federal Reserve bank says check writing has declined almost 75% in the last 25 years, and the Fed should know because it has operated the infrastructure for checks since 1914.

QUINN: So back in the day, you know, the Federal Reserve had a fleet of airplanes and semitrucks. They have, you know, these centers with people moving stuff through - very labor-intensive, expensive process.

MARTÍNEZ: I can't believe, Sacha, we're explaining checks.

PFEIFFER: (Laughter).

MARTÍNEZ: Now, the history of the check goes back to the 11th century, almost a thousand years before the invention of the debit card. Speaking of which, Quinn says a debit card isn't that different from a check.

QUINN: It's just replaced the paper messaging part, if you will, with the digital. But the function is still doing the same thing.

PFEIFFER: But Quinn says checks will probably stick around for a while because they're especially handy for large payments - things like the down payment for a car or a house.

QUINN: It's going to be a long time before Venmo is going to be covering tens of thousands of dollars.

PFEIFFER: A, by the way, do you even remember the last check you wrote?

MARTÍNEZ: Yep, 15 years ago to a cleaning lady.

PFEIFFER: (Laughter).

MARTÍNEZ: She'd left it on the seat of her car in plain view. Her daughter wrote down my account number, started draining it and she was caught. It was revealed she was part of a larger check fraud operation.

PFEIFFER: (Laughter) What?

MARTÍNEZ: No more checks for me.

PFEIFFER: I did not expect a story like that.

MARTÍNEZ: That's...

PFEIFFER: Thanks for sharing, A.

(SOUNDBITE OF AVERAGE WHITE BAND'S "PICK UP THE PIECES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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