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Fingerprints for bank accounts

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Businesses' Fingerprint Policies Stir Controversy

James Brown thumbed his nose at Washington Mutual when asked to provide a thumbprint to open a bank account.

The retired schoolteacher wouldn't comply with the requirement, even if, according to the bank, it was meant to protect him from fraud. Brown believed it was an invasion of his privacy.

"I think in the name of stopping the crooks, you're taking away the civil liberties of the common people," he said in an interview. "Don't treat me like a crook."

Like it or not, the rest of us are likely to have a more difficult time than Brown in saying no in the future. That's because the use of fingerprints by business is on the rise, not only as a deterrent to financial fraud and identity theft, but also as added security against terrorists.

Some even are looking at fingerprints -- a form of biometric identification -- to improve customer convenience.

Banks and retailers are leading the charge, but other industries are developing their own uses. While Washington Mutual is one of the few in Georgia collecting fingerprints thus far, the practice is spreading:

-- Bi-Lo, a grocery chain based in Mauldin, S.C., is rolling out a fingerprint system for payroll check cashing to 150 more stores after a test this year in 26 locations.

-- U-Haul has taken thumbprints from customers since 1999 as a deterrent to theft or abandonment of its trucks and trailers. The Phoenix-based company decides where to require it, based on equipment loss. The system is not used in Georgia, according to the company.

-- A handful of businesses in the Washington area allow customers to use a fingerprint and a pass-code number to pay for goods instead of writing a check.

-- Alpharetta-based ChoicePoint, which makes fingerprint identification software, is a partner in a venture to develop thumbprint-based identity cards that could be used to speed access to airports and the like.

Perhaps the only thing slowing the trend is concern about how customers will react, said Trevor Prout, director of marketing for International Biometric Group, a New York biometric research and consulting firm.

The American Civil Liberties Union and other organizations have a different concern. They worry about the accuracy of biometric identification, what data will be gathered in the process and how the data will be used.

"Not that biometrics is any better or any worse than any of the other data-gathering systems, but we have no laws that govern their use in the private sector," said Barry Steinhardt, who directs the ACLU's "technology and liberty" project.

"The technology is developing at the speed of light, but the law is back in the Stone Age," he said.

It's not as if fingerprinting is new. In Georgia, drivers already give up an index fingerprint to get their licenses. And it is common for banks to require a thumbprint or fingerprint when a consumer who is not a customer wants to cash a check, a practice recommended by the FBI to prevent fraud.

The new trend is to take a print when someone wants to open a bank account, according to the American Bankers Association in Washington. In Minnesota, the state's largest bankers association encourages all of its members to adopt a fingerprinting process, but does not know how many have done so.

But with the exception of Washington Mutual's requirement, it's not widely used in Georgia, according to the Georgia Bankers Association.

A Washington Mutual spokeswoman said it might be difficult for consumers to see a benefit immediately but that the Seattle-based bank uses thumbprints in part to protect its customers.

"I can see where customers may be a little apprehensive," said Nova Hunn Barnett, a spokeswoman for Washington Mutual in metro Atlanta. But, she said, "we believe it serves as a deterrent and ultimately this will help protect" customers against fraud.

The bank requires a thumbprint from new customers in order to discourage fraud and to deter crooks if they get their hands on a customer's check and try to cash it, Barnett said

If a check is forged using a customer's name and account, Washington Mutual turns the thumbprint of the real customer over to police, she said. The thumbprint can then be compared with that of the alleged forger.

Brown, the prospective customer who said no to a thumbprint, said he understands the intent, but dislikes the method and worries about the safety of his personal information. So instead of opening a savings account at Washington Mutual, Brown said he stuck with his old bank.

While some consumers might not like the idea of fingerprints, some businesses do. Bi-Lo said its test of a fingerprint system for payroll check sharply reined in fraud.

"We've seen about a 70 percent reduction in fraudulent payroll checks," said Joyce Smart, a Bi-Lo spokeswoman.

Some Bi-Lo stores in Georgia, including ones in Augusta, Athens and Cartersville, will start using the system this month. Stores are selected based on the history of problem checks, according to the company.

Smart said Bi-Lo has not run into opposition from consumers reluctant to provide a fingerprint. The system is easier and faster for payroll check cashers because they no longer have to show identification, she said. All they have to do is put an index finger on the scanner.

The system used by Bi-Lo -- made by a company called BioPay in Herndon, Va. -- requires people cashing checks to place both index fingers on a small electronic scanner. Both fingers are scanned to provide a backup if one finger is later scarred. Based on the fingerprint, the system approves the check or provides an alert if the consumer has bounced checks or tried to cash fraudulent ones.

A different BioPay system provides a substitute for writing a check. It's being used by some gas station owners, cellular phone dealers and a General Nutrition Centers franchisee in the Washington area.

Consumers who want to use the system sign up by providing a checking account number and their fingerprints, said Robyn Porter, a BioPay spokeswoman. To pay for something, they punch in their pass code and press an index finger onto a screen at an outlet using the system.

"You don't have to show any personal information, so it's safer," she said.

The company would have to convince Brown of that. The Douglasville resident not only doesn't like the idea of private companies collecting his fingerprints, he worries about his financial information bouncing around on yet another database.

BioPay's response is that it does not share even a fingerprint -- which is encrypted in electronic form -- let alone other customer information.

So far, BioPay hasn't signed up any national retail chains, and the system has not been made available as an alternative to credit cards -- yet.

But, said Porter, "we may in the future."

To see more of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to

(c) 2003, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.

Photo Copyright Getty Images

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