After testing the waters in three southeastern states, First Union Corp. said it would roll out a controversial customer fingerprinting program in 883 branches up and down the East Coast.
Starting April 7, the Charlotte, N.C.-based company will require people without accounts to be thumbprinted before being allowed to cash a check. The practice is designed to prevent check fraud, and First Union officials said the program would cut such losses by 40%.
"It's something we've tried in other areas of the country and it's been extremely successful," said Percy T. Blackburn, senior vice president in charge of operations in Virginia, Maryland, and Washington. "There is a lot of fraud."
First Union is one of several banking companies to adopt fingerprinting to deter check-cashing fraud. Experts said such fraud amounts to $1 billion a year. But critics claim fingerprinting is an invasion of privacy.
In Texas alone, some 200 banking companies employ fingerprinting, including Columbus, Ohio-based Banc One Corp. and San Francisco- based Wells Fargo & Co.
At least two dozen state banking associations have also agreed to sell fingerprinting equipment to member banks.
But in most of the states where First Union will start its program , it will be the first bank to use fingerprinting.
And, the program may generate criticism.
Indeed, while company officials say less than 1% of patrons complain about fingerprinting, First Union's recent effort to take thumbprints in Georgia generated a major headache for the company.
After it introduced the program in January, two Georgia lawmakers sponsored legislation that would either prohibit or curb banks' ability to thumbprint patrons.
First Union bankers in Georgia also had to endure protest marches, news crews carrying hidden cameras, and even one irate customer who threatened gunfire.
The Georgia legislative session ended March 28, and neither anti- fingerprinting bill passed into law.
Legislators, however, said they will continue to fight for them.
"Our efforts haven't stopped," said Georgia state Rep. Vernon Jones. "We're going to continue to make it as uncomfortable as possible for First Union."
Mr. Jones said he has been in contact with legislators in Connecticut who are considering introducing similar legislation there.
In Pennsylvania, another state where First Union plans to use the anti- fraud equipment, lawmakers are floating a proposed bill to limit fingerprinting.
"They will run into trouble in Philadelphia too," said James R. Biery, executive vice president of the Pennsylvania Bankers Association. "It's tough. People come walking in and you ask for thumbprints. There are some bankers that would not be willing to do that," said Mr. Biery.
"We looked at it to provide to our banks, but we found from a P.R. situation that it wasn't something we wanted to do."
First Union officials said they would not be deterred. "It does create some burden and hardship on some people," said Mr. Blackburn. "But the bottom line is this protects our checking customers."