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2 Forms of ID, Please--and a Thumbprint

Retail: Some O.C. merchants are fighting bad checks by fingerprinting their customers.

November 05, 1996|H.G. REZA and DEBRA CANO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

ANAHEIM — Consumers who use a personal check to pay for goods or services are being required by some merchants here to provide a thumbprint for identification under a program that has been praised by police but questioned by civil libertarians.

Anaheim police and the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce have been promoting the program for the past year, with about 50 local businesses participating so far.

Law enforcement officials believe the program can be so helpful in reducing check fraud that seven other cities--Fountain Valley, Cypress, Garden Grove, Irvine, Brea, Santa Ana and Buena Park--have either begun similar programs or announced plans to launch them.

In addition, 10 major banks in Sacramento have started an experimental program requiring non-customers to give their fingerprints before cashing checks.

Anaheim merchants are enthusiastic about the results so far.

"I haven't had a bad check since we started the program," said Linda Newby, owner of Gallery Travel. "We've had a few people refuse to give us their thumbprint, and it makes you wonder why. But if they don't give us their thumbprint, we probably don't want their business."

However, amid increasing attention to the fingerprinting program, consumer advocacy groups are worried about privacy issues and possible abuse through the theft of checks imprinted with fingerprints.

A San Diego-based privacy rights group, for example, says it has received complaints from Orange County residents who believe the fingerprinting is intrusive.

"We have been getting a lot of calls from people in Orange County complaining that they were required to give their fingerprints when writing a check," said Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. "There's also a stigma associated with fingerprinting. People feel like criminals when asked to put their thumbprint on the back of a check simply because they're buying groceries."

Although merchant participation in Anaheim is voluntary, police officials are encouraging all businesses in the city to adopt the program. Cases of victimized merchants who do not participate in the program are assigned a lower priority by check fraud investigators, according to police.

Detective Werner R. Raes said his department investigates about 400 new check fraud cases each month but that "up to 75% of the cases go unsolved because we can't prove who the human being was at the point of sale."

Raes said that consumers' privacy concerns and fear of identification theft are unwarranted.

"You can't do anything with a thumbprint until they're submitted to the police department as part of a criminal investigation," Raes said. "Actually, the majority of prints will be on the back of checks returned to customers with their monthly statements."

However, assurances do not ease the fears and concerns of program critics.

Pamela Pressley, an attorney with the California Public Interest Research Group, compared it to "Big Brother looking over your shoulder." She said that Raes discussed the program with her earlier this year.

"It sounded like a good idea at first, but it's an outrageous program," Pressley said. "For the average person . . . it's a complete invasion of your privacy."

Ed Howard, an attorney at the Center for Law in the Public Interest, said there is already enough personal information about individuals available through the Internet, and putting a thumbprint on the back of a check will make it easier for criminals to steal a person's identity.

"Everybody has access to our Social Security number, address, driver's license number and telephone number," Howard said. "I would be very nervous about a private business having my fingerprint. What else are they going to use it for? Will they sell it like many companies sell our address and phone number to solicitors? Who else besides the merchant will be given access to these prints?"

Mary Raftery,CALPIRG legislative director in Sacramento, said the consumer watchdog group is studying the issue to determine if "we should move forward next year and propose legislation to outlaw this practice."

But Anaheim merchants using the program hail it as a way to cut the losses from bad checks, even though some customers balk at first.

"Basically, people are saying it's about time somebody did something to help protect them," said Thomas Lambert, loss prevention manager at CompUSA at Anaheim Plaza.

Raes said that merchants who participate in the program are allowed to set their own guidelines but must apply them across the board.

"You can't pick and choose whom you're going to require prints from," he said. "You set a guideline and it must be consistent. You're required to take prints from all customers without discriminating."

However, some stores require the prints from all check-paying customers while others require them only for purchases above a certain amount.

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