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FINGERPRINT PROGRAM TARGETS CHECK FRAUD

The Utah banking industry launched a new fingerprint verification program Wednesday that it hopes will reduce check fraud.

Lawrence W. Alder, president of the Utah Bankers Association, said the "Touch Signature" program will require people to affix their fingerprint to checks that they cash at banks where they don't have an account. Identification will also be required.Alder emphasized that customers who have accounts at the bank will not be fingerprinted.

All but a few Utah banks have adopted the program in which non-bank customers will be asked to place their index finger on a pad of an inklike substance and then make a fingerprint on the face of the check above the signature line. The substance is said to be non-staining and leaves no residue on the finger.

Stephen K. Thomas, director of the UBA's Public Relations Committee and vice president of marketing for Zions Bank, said check fraud nationally has increased from $567 million in losses in 1991 to some $1.4 billion in 1995.

"We don't have good figures for Utah (losses), but we have our own bank's experience, and we are seeing increasing exposure," said Thomas. He noted that of 173 "alerts" sent out to Zions' branches last year, 90 percent involved check fraud.

He said recent losses involving counterfeit checks from just two local companies with accounts at Zions totaled $110,000.

Why the big increases in check fraud? Alder points to technological gains in desktop printing and quick-printing shops that allow forgers to easily duplicate corporate checks. With phony identification, also easily obtained, he said, forgers are having a field day.

"Check forging has always been a problem, but it has really escalated with the ability to easily reproduce checks," said Alder.

He said programs similar to Touch Signature are now being used in other states, including Nevada and Arizona, and have proven to be effective deterents to check scams.

Local law enforcement officials think it's a good idea, too.

"I am aware of the problems created by stolen, forged and counterfeit checks, and I'm very supportive of any programs which will detect or deter . . . check fraud," said Thomas T. Kubic, special agent in charge of the Salt Lake Division, Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Salt Lake County Sheriff Aaron D. Kennard said he supports the new fingerprint procedure, terming it a "significant investigative technique." Salt Lake Police Chief Reuben B. Ortega said the program will help prosecute illegal check passers.

But the bankers see Touch Signature as more of a preventive measure than a law enforcement one. If check forgers know that they will be fingerprinted while passing a phony check they are much more likely to take their "business" elsewhere - presumably to another state.

"A lot of it is coming from out-of- state people," said Thomas. "Six or seven people will come into town, pass a bunch of forged payroll checks and be out of the state in a matter of hours."

Alder said the UBA has gotten legal opinions that requiring non-bank customers to be fingerprinted is legal as long as it is equitable and non-discriminatory.

"Check fraud costs all of us," said Alder. "Legitimate customers shouldn't have any concerns."