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WHO SHOULD PAY FOR BAD CHECKS?

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People who write checks and have them bounce because of insufficient funds usually create three problems: one for themselves, one for the person who tried to cash or deposit the check and one for the banks involved.

When a check bounces, often because of an innocent oversight, the check writer pays a usually significant handling fee to the bank for the inconvenience and extra work in correcting the problem.But a growing trend in the industry is to levy a fee on the person to whom the check was written as well. Since that person or business essentially was an innocent bystander, such a fee hardly seems fair.

A recent survey of banks in 30 states by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group shows 85 percent now charge such fees. This is up 35 percent from a 1991 survey.

No figures are available for Utah, which was not included in the study. Some Utah banks levy such a fee and others do not.

In the national survey, this so-called "deposit item return" fee ranged from $1.25 to $20 and averaged $5.29.

The American Bankers Association says the fees are a reasonable way to recoup losses caused by bad checks and that retailers who accept checks have a responsibility to know their customers and get sufficient data when accepting a check.

But that view, while valid as far as it goes, misses the point. Most stores and individuals are careful about accepting checks and demand current identification. Yet the most cautious retailer - who may even know the check writer as an established and reliable customer - has no way of knowing how much money is in the check writer's account at the moment.

Lawry Alder of the Utah Banking Association agrees that it is a tough problem and that imposing a fee on an innocent party in the transaction raises problems. But, as he notes, the bank is an innocent party as well and is faced with costs as a result.

That is true, yet other factors must be taken into account:

First, the cost to the bank may be fixed and small, especially if the check writer quickly covers the overdraft. But the person who received the bad check may get caught in a chain reaction. Believing the check to be good, he may then write his own checks based on that belief, only to have them bounce as well. Thus he is stuck with additional check handling fees, including the higher ones for having written one or more checks with insufficient funds.

Second, while dealing with insufficient fund checks are an expense to a bank, how much of a loss is it? A recent court case noted that banks this year will earn a $1.1 billion profit on fees for processing returned checks and other items. That's up from $740 million two years ago.

Congress is going to start holding hearings next month to explore the situation. It will be a tough issue for banks.