Sears drops racial codes on checks at Md. store

May 02, 1991|By Blair S. Walker

Sears, Roebuck and Co. has discontinued its practice of putting racial identification codes on checks written at its Landover store after a customer voiced her displeasure with the policy.

A Sears spokesman said the practice isn't used at all of its 863 stores nationwide and added that it was implemented in Landover at the suggestion of the Prince George's County Police Department. A department spokesman confirmed that, saying the recommendation was made to expedite the prosecution of bad check cases.

The Landover customer who objected to the policy, Elaine Pinkney, purchased some electronic equipment at the store recently and paid for it with a check. She said the store clerk copied information from her driver's license and from her American Express card onto the check, then marked it with a rubber stamp.

Within the stamped area were spaces for height, weight, date of birth and the letters "W, A, B, H." The letters stand for white, Asian, black, and Hispanic, according to Gordon Jones, a Sears spokesman.

Ms. Pinkney said the clerk handling her sale circled B. "I didn't say anything, and then it just got the best of me," she said yesterday. "I asked, 'Does that stand for black?' and he said, 'Yes.' I asked him why, and he said it was just their store policy, for security reasons.

"The last thing he said to me was not to take it personally," said Ms. Pinkney, 30, who works in Washington as an accounting assistant. "I did take it personally, because it didn't seem necessary.

"With my driver's license number, I figured he could find out anything he wanted to know about me, if need be. It just seemed unfair."

She contacted the manager and received a call Monday telling her the practice had been terminated.

"On our own, we have stopped that practice, at our own expense, because of the objections of this customer," Guy Eberhart, a Sears spokesman in Chicago, said.

The policy wasn't used "nationwide, it was only in that store and in that area -- Prince George's County -- for the protection, really of the customers," he said. Capt. James White, a Prince George's County Police Department spokesman, said his department routinely sends a form letter to county businesses DTC suggesting that they record information such as date of birth, sex and race on checks.

"It's intended to try to identify the person in the event of a bad check," Captain White said. "It's better if the witness on the scene is actually saying what the person looked like, instead of us finding out about it as an investigative matter later. It's not mandatory, but it definitely would expedite the investigation and prosecution process."

A spokesman with the Maryland Commission on Human Relations, Richard Montgomery, said the practice could violate the state's public accommodation laws if the information is used improperly.

"If that racial coding information is being used to treat blacks or women or Asians differently, then it's illegal," Mr. Montgomery said. "Generally speaking, the best idea is not to use it.

"The reason for that is, just the practice of asking for it certainly raises a suspicious eyebrow."

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