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Bad checks ...Thumbprint offers protection

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by Karen E. Culp

SBJ Staff

Thumbprints on checks might save Express Lane some money.

The locally owned chain of convenience and gas stores is asking for a thumbprint on checks in the hope that it will have to spend less money and time "chasing bad checks," said Roy Courtney, operations manager for Express Lane stores.

The stores implemented the thumbprint program about three weeks ago. The company got the idea from the Missouri Grocers Association, which recommended it as a way of deterring customers from passing bad checks.

"When you write a check, we ask for a lot of information. We have to see your identification, we need your home phone number, work phone number, lots of information to give to the (Greene County) prosecutor if there's a problem. The thumbprint is just one more way to identify a person, and it's a much more definitive way of doing so," Courtney said.

Greene County Prosecuting Attorney Ron Carrier said the thumbprint programs being used by Express Lane, and some banks and other stores around town, are good if the person's thumbprint is already on file. The program is best, he said, as a deterrent.

"If you see that you're required to give a thumbprint, and you know that's a check you shouldn't be writing, then you may be more likely not to write that check," Carrier said.

Courtney said the thumbprinting program is a response to the "huge number of checks being stolen around town, and the continued increase in the problem we have with bad checks in Greene County." One of Express Lane's stores took in more than $2,000 worth of bad checks in one month, Courtney said.

"If you try to limit taking checks at all, then the hard-working people who are honest suffer, but you've got to find a way to protect yourself so that you take as little loss as possible," Courtney said.

Check services that keep an electronic database of checks are helpful, but it can be up to a two-week period before bad checks passed show up in the database, Courtney said.

The thumbprint also helps in identifying the bad check writer, since sometimes, the clerk who took the check may have moved on to another job by the time the check is processed.

"We have such a high turnover of clerks in this business sometimes as high as 120 or 130 percent turnover and so it's difficult when a check comes back and that clerk is no longer with us," Courtney said.

The clerks also process hundreds of transactions per day and can have difficulty keeping track of which customer wrote what check, Courtney added.

Carrier said a new form used for bad check complaints, which has been used since June, requires the clerk who accepted the check to sign that he or she can identify the check writer or can swear that identification was asked for at the time of the transaction.

More than 100 banks in Missouri are now taking thumbprints on certain transactions, according to information from the Missouri Bankers Association. NationsBank in Springfield, for example, asks for a thumbprint when a patron who does not hold an account with NationsBank asks to cash a check.

The Missouri Bankers and Missouri Grocers Associations are providing data to members about the thumbprint program, and they are also providing the supplies.

The thumbprints are provided beside the signature on a check, Courtney said, and the ink that is used comes off the skin easily.

"It doesn't make much of a mess. We're asking our clerks to keep tissues at the counter," Courtney said.

Express Lane is owned by the Deck family. There are 12 Express Lane stores in the Springfield area; 10 are in Springfield, one is in Republic and another is in Mt. Vernon. The stores are all gas and convenience stores.

Courtney said the thumbprinting measure was necessary as a way to protect the store, and its customers, from future losses.

"Whether or not you like this program depends on your point of view. If you've just had a box of checks stolen from you, then you're grateful for something like this," Courtney said.

Customers have not had an adverse reaction, Courtney said, adding that "no one has been calling me to complain yet."

The thumbprint is just one more means of identification added to a check, he said, and one more assurance that the company will be compensated for some of its losses on bad checks.

PHOTO CAPTION:

An Express Lane customer prepares to make a thumbprint.[[In-content Ad]]

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