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Woman gets inkling of violation; Banks' fingerprinting standard practice.

Byline: Clive McFarlane

COLUMN: CLIVE MCFARLANE

These are not the best of times for people who still think protecting their privacy is a winnable battle, but Theresa Cherry didn't know it had gotten this bad.

There she was trying to cash a check at Commerce Bank recently, and found herself being forced to contemplate the fine differences between herself - a bank customer - and a bank robber.

She did not have an account with Commerce, but the check she was cashing was drawn on the bank. The teller had checked the account to make sure it could cover the check, and had looked over the three types of identification Ms. Cherry had presented.

But instead of handing her the cash, the teller handed Ms. Cherry what looked like an ink pad.

"What is that for?" Ms. Cherry recalled asking, quite perplexed.

"Oh, we need your fingerprint," the teller responded nonchalantly.

"I don't think so," Ms. Cherry responded.

"Explain to me," she asked the teller, taking the diplomatic route initially. "I have never been in the military and I have never been arrested, so I have no fingerprints on file. So what's the use of taking my fingerprint?"

When that didn't work, she went straight to the heart of the matter.

"This is an invasion of my civil rights," she said. "The police cannot stop me on the street and demand a fingerprint, so why should a business be given the power to do so?"

Ms. Cherry has been calling on local and state representatives to express her concerns, but no one so far has been able to help her feel real comfortable that she has any control over protecting her privacy.

The banking industry feels just as strongly as she does.

Jamie Richardson, security officer for Commerce Bank, noted that the fingerprinting policy is endorsed by the Massachusetts Bankers Association, and that it has been implemented in a number of banks across the state.

According to Mr. Richardson, the policy has led to a decrease in check fraud, particularly in their banks in Worcester. He estimated that since the practice was introduced in June 2006, "uninsured losses have fallen by some $200,000."

"We absolutely don't regret putting it in place," he said. "We try to train our tellers to tell customers that it is not about them, but about protecting them and the bank against these losses.

"Somebody passing a counterfeit check has no problem showing phony identification, but they don't care too much about leaving a thumbprint behind."

Bruce Spitzer, communication director of the Massachusetts Bankers Association, said the policy has been in place for years around the country, but was introduced in Massachusetts in 2004.

Generally, the policy requires non-account holders trying to cash checks to voluntarily leave a thumbprint on the check. Without the thumbprint, the customer is invited to open an account with the bank or is refused check-cashing privileges.

Mr. Spitzer also pointed out that most banks do not allow non-customers to cash checks, so the fingerprinting policy is actually "giving these customers the opportunity to cash a check in banks in which they would otherwise not have been able to."

According to Mr. Spitzer, the fingerprinting policy has reduced check fraud by more than 80 percent in most places.

"It is a practice that benefits the bank and customers because check fraud hurts everyone," he said.

Southbridge Savings Bank and Milford National Bank are among Central Massachusetts financial institutions that have implemented the practice.

Peter Mazzine, security officer for the Milford National Bank, defended the practice as a justifiable means of preventing bank fraud.

"It shouldn't be a problem if you don't have anything to hide," he said.

Mr. Mazzine acknowledged, however, that some customers were not too happy with the requirement, and that the bank had suggested that these customers, if they were going to do frequent business with the bank, "try to make a habit of going to the same branch for each of their transactions."

In that case, the teller would come to know them and a fingerprint would not be necessary each time, he said.

Older people might have an issue with the practice, but they "are from a generation where everyone knows everyone," he said.

"But the younger people coming up are used to these security features in life. For them, it is a way of life."

That might be, but Ms. Cherry is not like them.

"What's next?" she asked. "Giving up my DNA sample in order to cash a check?"

Quiet, Ms. Cherry. You don't want to give these guys any ideas.

Contact Clive McFarlane by e-mail at cmcfarlane@telegram.com.
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Title Annotation:LOCAL NEWS
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Mar 21, 2007
Words:774
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