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`PROTECTION’ FOR MERCHANTS CAN LEAVE CHECK WRITER VULNERABLE

SHARE `PROTECTION’ FOR MERCHANTS CAN LEAVE CHECK WRITER VULNERABLE

In an era when merchants preach customer service as the highest of values, store owners hold true to an annoying practice: verifying personal check and credit card payments.

It's common procedure for consumers to hand over their credit card numbers, phone numbers, addresses and anything else a store clerk requests to ring up a purchase. The now defunct Gibson's Discount Center used to fingerprint customers at the check stand before accepting a personal check.It's all done under the assumption - by clerk and customer alike - that if you don't provide the information the store will be left holding the bag if your check or credit card transaction doesn't clear the bank.

The fact is that's not true, according to several banks, merchants, collection agencies and credit card companies contacted by the Deseret News. No amount of numbers, addresses or fingerprints can guarantee payment on a personal check or credit card. The transaction will either clear or it won't, and collection agencies rarely use the information to track down deadbeats.

The practice has angered consumers nationwide. Recently, the Bankcard Holders of America, based in Virginia, lashed out at merchants for invasion of privacy and exposing consumers to fraud by requiring disclosure of credit card and phone numbers.

"Mail order fraud and application fraud are increasingly popular crimes, and placing this information on a personal check enables a thief to make purchases or apply for credit in the customer's names," the consumer group says.

Check Rite of Salt Lake, a company that tracks down bouncing checks for retailers, says it has no need for credit card numbers, and only occasionally will a phone number help. In most cases, collectors will contact the bank, which will then contact the account holder to straighten out the problem, says Gordon Everett, an account representative for Check Rite.

And if Check Rite must resort to direct contact with deadbeats, a phone number (which could be phony) isn't necessary. "We have other ways to find them," Everett says.

So whose idea is it to pressure consumers to cough up personal information before cashing a check?

Some banks require it and some don't. So to please everyone, retailers have come up with their own policies to please banks and themselves.

First Interstate Bank of Utah, which claims to have introduced the check guarantee card to Utah in the early 1970s, says it requires merchants to record the last four digits of the customer's guarantee number on a personal check, in addition to verifying expiration dates and matching signatures.

Asked why the four digits and not just a general notation that the check is guaranteed, the bank said it believes if clerks take the time to jot down four digits they will have checked the signatures and expiration dates, too.

Apparently, according to store owners and bankers, all of this diligence by merchants gives them some clout when it comes to telling a bank to honor its checks. But at the same time, most any financial institution will do all it can to back up its checks and avoid having a sign in a store window blaring: "We don't accept checks from ZZZ Bank."

As for writing down the number of a credit card, major credit card companies prohibit merchants from trying to use a credit card as a way to collect on a bad check. "This is strictly forbidden," says Dan Brigham, spokesman for VISA.

Another thing VISA frowns upon is retailers requiring a customer to record his phone number on the credit card sales slips. "It's not our policy and we advise members not to require it," Brigham says. "It doesn't do VISA any good and we think it is an inconvenience" to the consumer.

So, armed with your rights, you the consumer can defiantly march to the cash register and refuse to disclose credit and phone numbers. Well, take your chances, if you don't mind making a scene.

At Smith's supermarkets, a manager will be called in to make the call. "If it is an older person then we will probably let them go, but if it's a younger person we will dishonor it," says Haven Simmons, operations director for the regional chain.

He adds that it's a subjective judgment by the clerk - does the customer appear trustworthy or look like a crook - whether to ask for an address and phone number.

Simmons admits that cashing checks can be annoying for customers. To reduce the hassle, Smith's offers its own check protection card that customers can apply for.

However - speaking from personal experience - that won't entirely stop requests for your phone number. And if that happens, you don't have to irritate other shoppers in line as you demand your rights. Just politely cooperate by writing down a phone number that expresses your feelings, such as: 746-8348.