Cashing checks gets tougher No account here? Then bank wants your thumbprint

March 24, 1997|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

Driver's license and thumbprint, please.

That's what check cashers will have to hand over next month at all branches of First Union National Bank, unless they have an account with the bank.

Starting April 7, customers without accounts must place a thumbprint on checks as part of the new Thumbs-Up Identification Program at First Union. The bank is believed to be the first in Maryland to use such a program to prevent check fraud.

First Union officials hope the program will help save hundreds of thousands of dollars a year by giving police another way to identify bad-check perpetrators.

In 1994, the banking industry lost about $815 million to check fraud, according to the American Bankers Association. First Union lost $465,000 in the Maryland-D.C.-Virginia area last year.

Some civil liberties groups say that the extra security measure may be taking things a little too far.

"Potentially, whenever people give up their Social Security number or their thumbprint, it's highly likely that it will be stored somewhere," said Susan Goering, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland. "And that's the danger because you have no control over it.

"It can allow universal data banks to collect information about people that may or may not be true," Goering said. "Nowadays when people have so much access to so much of your personal information, you have to be wary of your privacy."

Bank officials dismiss such concerns. They say the program will mostly serve as a deterrent to criminals while protecting the community, businesses and bank customers -- especially when checks are stolen or lost.

"Check fraud is such a major problem," said John Hall, an ABA spokesman. "In 1994, the industry lost $65 million to bank robberies. In the same year, we lost 10 times that amount to check fraud."

The thumbprint process is simple, according to fliers at the First Union branch in Annapolis Mall.

"All non-deposit account holders who wish to cash a check will be asked to provide not only the standard forms of identification, but also to place their thumb print on the check," the flier says. "Just place your thumb on the pad, then onto the check, rub your fingers together and the ink is gone quick, simple and clean."

The flier warns that such transactions will no longer be processed at the drive-through window. It also informs customers that the thumbprint will not be kept on file and will be used only by law enforcement officials in cases where fraud is suspected, said David Scanzoni, a First Union spokesman.

About 19 other states use the thumbprint program, which was started in Nevada in 1994. First Union successfully tested the program in its Florida and South Carolina branches last year. It had no figures on how often the thumbprints are used in prosecutions, Scanzoni said.

Government and private agencies are increasingly using prints as a security measure. For example, fingerprints are required for driver's license applications in California and Texas. Welfare recipients are fingerprinted in several New York counties. Customers who use personal checks to pay for goods or services must provide a thumbprint for some businesses in Anaheim, Calif.

"People shouldn't be offended by it," said Timothy Green, a First Union customer in Annapolis. "Some may be, but I'm not. They're just trying to safeguard people's property and people's money. I think that's a good idea."

Bank customer Shashi Thapar agreed and said, "We have TC business, too, and we get a lot of checks that bounce so we lose a lot of money that way. I wish we could start something like that."

But some critics find the program insulting.

"Today it's a thumbprint, tomorrow it's a urine sample," said Annapolis Alderman Carl O. Snowden. "It's a question of how far this society will go."

Privacy watchdog groups say thumbprints could drive away young people and immigrants who tend not to have bank accounts, but don't need the "criminal stigma" of being fingerprinted.

Robert Ellis Smith, publisher of Privacy Journal, a monthly newsletter on privacy and computers in Providence, R.I., said, "If you don't like it, you can go elsewhere to cash your checks, I guess. It's very discouraging that people would accept it now. Ten years ago, they would never have agreed because of the criminal stigma attached to fingerprinting. I think it's an insult to people."

But Scanzoni, the First Union spokesman, said, "Folks are happy to do it because it's kind of in the same vein as the airport where we all have to go through a security metal detector. It doesn't mean we're all criminals. It's just there to protect all of us."

Pub Date: 3/24/97

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