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Bank hopes thumb prints will suppress check fraud

In an attempt to stamp out check fraud, First Union National Bank of Florida will soon require customers who don't have accounts with the bank to provide their thumb prints if they want to cash a check.

For now, First Union's thumb-printing will be limited to Pinellas, Hillsborough, Dade and Duval counties. But the bank soon plans to require thumb prints at its branches throughout Florida.

"It's a deterrent," said Ken Darby, a First Union spokesman. "It'll make a person think twice before trying to cash a fraudulent check."

A survey by the American Bankers Association found the banking industry lost $850-million to check fraud in 1993, the last year for which data is available.

Darby would not disclose First Union's losses to check fraud. But he said most of the bank's losses to check fraud can be attributed to check cashers who don't have First Union accounts.

First Union, based in Charlotte, N.C., is the first big bank in Florida to require the thumb prints.

But a few small community banks throughout the state also require prints when customers without accounts cash checks, said John Milstead, executive vice president of the Florida Bankers Association in Tallahassee.

The Florida Bankers Association offers all its members help in establishing thumb-print programs. The association's program is similar to one offered by the Texas Bankers Association.

In Texas, some banks started taking thumb prints from customers last year. In the first six months, six Texas banks halved their check fraud losses, according to information from the Texas association.

Banks also take thumb prints in Arizona, and bankers groups in a dozen other states have made arrangements with the Texas Bankers Association to implement similar programs.

At First Union, tellers will require each person without an account to provide a thumb print to cash checks drawn on First Union or government accounts. The bank won't cash checks drawn on other banks. People who use drive-up windows will have to provide thumb prints, too.

First Union already charges fees _ typically 1 percent of the face value of the check _ and requires a driver's license as identification.

If people don't want to provide prints, they can take their checks to other banks or open an account at First Union, Darby said. Otherwise they have to resort to check-cashing stores that typically have higher fees than banks.

Ken Thomas, a University of Pennsylvania business professor who lives in Miami, said First Union should take care to adhere to its policy of asking everyone without an account for prints, or the bank will risk facing charges of racial or economic bias.

"It has to be done on a totally non-discriminatory basis," he said.

To take a print, a teller will ask those cashing checks to press a thumb on a round ink pad about the size of a 50-cent coin, then press it on the check.

The pad uses a non-toxic ink that produces a black print on the check, but leaves little residue on the person's thumb once it has been pressed to the paper.

The bank won't keep copies of the prints on file, Darby said. But the checks can serve as evidence if the bank suspects fraud.

Thumb-printing may seem intrusive, but Robyn Blumner, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, says First Union isn't violating anyone's rights.

Privacy rights protect people against government intrusions but don't generally extend to corporations.

"They don't even have an obligation to keep your prints private," she said. "Once you give them your prints, that's information they can sell. It's really, "Buyer beware.' "