How did Counter Checks Work in this specific instance.
April 2, 2024 3:46 PM   Subscribe

This weekend I was watching an old episode of Columbo. He had some car repairs done and when he went to pay the mechanic, couldn't find his checkbook. He asked if they had a Counter Check. They did and he used that to pay.

After the show was over I looked up what a counter check is, and think I understand, in the context of using one at a bank. But how did it work at the mechanic's, in the above example?
posted by 922257033c4a0f3cecdbd819a46d626999d1af4a to Work & Money (13 answers total)
Best answer: I think some stores would keep counter checks from the local bank(s), which was a lot easier when there were only one or two.

Go back far enough and there was no standardized form for a check--in theory, you could write it on any piece of paper.
posted by praemunire at 3:49 PM on April 2 [10 favorites]

Best answer: Seconding praemunire, it would have been a simple blank check form. In simpler times, a trusted customer could write out a check on a blank like the one you saw, including all the specific bank ID information, and the bank would honor it just like a check from Columbo's own checkbook.

A couple of other examples: a check written on a watermelon, and a check made out to "You Rotten Bastard," were held by the courts to meet the minimum UCC requirements to be valid checks.
posted by JimN2TAW at 4:04 PM on April 2 [7 favorites]

I think some stores would keep counter checks from the local bank(s), which was a lot easier when there were only one or two.

That is also my understanding though I'm not familiar with this specific use case. However, I get counter checks printed at my small local bank for accounts which I write very sporadic checks, though I did not know this was what they were called. In my case, they are checks with my account/routing number on them and with some numbers that I pick (i.e. "print me four checks starting at 2000") and the name on my account.

Before everything was processed by machine, and presuming the bank knew both you and your mechanic (in this instance) they'd see Columbo was a patron of the bank, they'd see he'd signed the check, they'd transfer the money to the mechanic. You can look at this history of banking from the 1950s through the 1970s (and this from 1975-1999) in the US and get an idea of what the banking evolution was like.
posted by jessamyn at 4:05 PM on April 2 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: That all makes sense. I guess my disconnect was if he didn't have his checkbook, how did he remember all the account info.
posted by 922257033c4a0f3cecdbd819a46d626999d1af4a at 4:18 PM on April 2 [1 favorite]

In the old days, people had to remember numbers all the time! One improvement of the modern era. Routing numbers have been around since 1911, but I'm not sure if they were always mandatory, or nine digits long, for that matter.
posted by praemunire at 4:26 PM on April 2 [6 favorites]

My understanding is that, legally, at least in the U.S., there's a lot more flexibility to checks than we tend to assume there is. A check needs to have all the specific info that is required, but (still) doesn't have to be written on a certain form. (So really, he could have just written out all the info on a blank piece of paper and that would suffice.)

As for remembering your account info, I can rattle mine off for the account that I'd had for twenty plus years, though I changed it a couple of years back. It's only your routing number and your account number, which tend to be pretty easily memorized... at least in the days prior to digital everything.

The check number being "correct" isn't even relevant, really - it's more for your recordkeeping than anything, and it used to be when you ordered checks for a new account, it was a LOT better to start with, say, 1000, than to start with 0001. Some places would look a bit side-eyed at those blatantly brand-new accounts.

As for the term "counter check", these days that is what my bank calls checks that they print out for me three to a sheet if I go in and ask for a few. They've changed in style slightly over the years, but they used to not even be printed specifically for my account, I had to fill that all in myself, sort of like how the totally blank deposit slips at the bank that one had to use after you'd used up the few in the back of your checkbook.
posted by stormyteal at 4:30 PM on April 2 [7 favorites]

Another banking tidbit is that when you get a check certified it stops being a check and becomes a promissory note, the money is transferred from your account to the Bank's Official Checks Receivable account. Just don't lose it though!
posted by forthright at 5:17 PM on April 2 [2 favorites]

You wouldn't necessarily even need a routing number if you were writing the check to draw on a MetaBank checking account, and handing it over to your mechanic to deposit in their own MetaBank account (or cash, whatever). The routing number tells the mechanic's bank (if they choose not to MetaBank, the Bank with Beans) what to do with the check. But if the mechanice went to their local MetaBank branch with the check, bing-bang-boom, it's all handled in house, no routing, no clearinghouse, none of that rigamarole....

Customer A put "I totally owe customer B $simoleons" on paper w/ a signature, and customer B walks in to the same bank and says "Customer A says that you're going to give me my $simoleons when I give you this." And theoretically the teller looks at the signature, compares it to a signature on file for Customer A, and says "Yep, here's your $simoleons and a lollipop. Have a great day!" They may have to check Customer B's ID or something, but that's per-branch :)
posted by adekllny at 6:49 PM on April 2 [4 favorites]

if he didn't have his checkbook, how did he remember all the account info

I know absolutely everything is online/atm now, but In the old days (and by old I mean even like ~10-15 years ago) you would interact with both physical checks and bank tellers quite a bit more, and most teller interactions involved writing your bank account number on a deposit/withdrawal slip or similar. So it was pretty natural to end up memorizing it. All you'd really need on the check is your account number (especially if the checks were from local banks and had the routing number already on them -- but like others have said, this probably wouldn't be necessary for a local transaction). I went to get some quarters recently and was still able to fluently produce my current account number from memory.
posted by advil at 5:15 AM on April 3 [5 favorites]

1173812 was the number on the bank account I had as a child. I have no idea what any of my current bank account numbers are but I remember that one because as someone else noted, I had to write it on deposit slips every time I used the account.

I do know my credit card number, though, because I type it into a lot of web forms. I expect that'll go away in the near future as more and more sites use Google Pay or Shop Pay and I don't have to give them my actual number.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:24 AM on April 3 [1 favorite]

PS. I logged into my old bank to make sure that's not also my current account number before I posted it here and discovered they have been charging me $8 a month in service fees on an account I rarely use for the past year, so thanks MetaFilter for making me log into my old bank and fix that.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:36 AM on April 3 [10 favorites]

I cannot recite my current account number for a credit union I've been with for a decade but I DO still know by heart my long-gone checking account number from 30 years ago.
posted by gingerbeer at 3:51 PM on April 3 [1 favorite]

Way late to the party, but counter checks used to be very common and were exactly that, a stack of blank check forms for the local bank that sat on the counter at local merchants.

You didn't need to remember your account number or a routing number, you just filled out your name and address and the bank figured it out. At least where I saw them it worked because there was literally only one bank in town.
posted by wierdo at 12:29 PM on April 5

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