Beginning today, financial institutions must help state and local authorities identify accounts held by "deadbeat parents."

The "data match" program, part of a 1996 welfare reform law, requires banks, thrifts, credit unions, and brokerages to match account holders' Social Security numbers against a data base of child support debtors provided quarterly by the government.

Successful matches are referred back to the state agencies, which in turn must decide whether to place liens on the accounts. Financial institutions that act in good faith are protected from customer lawsuits.

The program is designed to help parents, especially those who have moved off welfare and into jobs, obtain delinquent child support payments.

"A tremendous number of people have hidden assets in financial institutions," said Ann Barkley, a consultant with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' child support enforcement office. She told the American Bankers Association's regulatory compliance conference Monday that there are nearly five million delinquency cases nationwide, with average debt of $7,750.

Some states, including Colorado and Washington, have decided to partially reimburse banks for the cost of performing the matches. California and other states will not, however.

After receiving the government's quarterly list of debtors, financial institutions will have 45 days to report back any matches with demand deposit, savings, time deposit, checking, or money market account holders.

Banks that operate in just one state must deal directly with the state government's child support agency. Those operating in two or more states have the choice of working with each state's agency or using a nationwide data base compiled by the federal government.

The government began sending copies of the national data base to participating banks on Monday. Some banks will begin returning matches by Aug. 15.

In an April test, Wells Fargo and Bank of America each matched the national debtor data base against their customer data bases. Wells Fargo found 72,193 matches with account balances totaling $69 million. Bank of America found 74,245 matches with accounts totaling $92 million.

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