A rising number of banks are using a variation on an old law enforcement tool to reduce fraud.
Institutions in 25 states have either started or are rolling out programs to fingerprint noncustomers who wish to cash checks at their teller windows. In some cases, banks are also fingerprinting people who want to open new accounts.
The programs employ imaging technology, rather than ink pads and paper, to capture fingerprints for analysis. Advocates of the programs, which have been blessed by law enforcement officials, state banking associations, and the American Bankers Association in Washington, say fingerprinting can reduce the instances of check fraud by 40% to 60%.
And despite criticism from some consumer groups and legislators, who have raised civil rights concerns, bankers report few complaints.
They say fingerprinting promises to be a stronger deterrent than other forms of physical identification, especially because of its connotations to law enforcement.
Fingerprinting is the most popular of fraud prevention efforts based on biometrics-the statistical analysis of biological features. But it is hardly the only choice available.
In the last year alone, the banking industry has been bombarded with new biometric products: retina scanners, iris scanners, and voice recognition equipment. All have been touted as remedies for problems with account security and fraud.
But these headline-grabbing technologies have yet to find widespread use in the industry, and it may be a longer road to acceptance than biometrics developers previously thought.
"There are quite a few banks doing trials, but these mostly involve staff access to computer systems," said Jackie Finn, vice president and research director of advanced technologies at the Gartner Group in Boston.
Biometric technology probably will not directly involve the public "until the problem of fraud overcomes the barriers of using technologies that are considered more intrusive," she added.
Even product developers agree that biometrics may have limited practical use for banks in their interactions with the public.
"People are massively opposed to these things," said Buddy Boyett, vice president at Baton Rouge, La.-based Eyedentify Inc., holder of the patent for retina scanners. "It's not going to work right now."
The most successful of the biometric technologies to date has been fingerprint imaging, say analysts who follow the market sector. Indeed, Purdue Federal Credit Union in West Lafayette, Ind., has begun using fingerprint-imaging systems developed by National Registry Inc. in Tampa in select self-service banking centers.
Voice-recognition technology has also made some headway into consumer banking. Chase Manhattan Corp. in New York wrapped up a test of voice authentication, a process by which a customer's voice is matched against a previously recorded template, in select Manhattan branches last fall. The equipment was produced by Voton Corp. in Pleasanton, Calif.
Chase's voice-authentication program is on ice while the bank decides whether to incorporate the technology in its new automated branch centers, said John A. White, president of Voton.
And other banks have backed away from plans to offer biometric technologies in place of traditional customer access using personal identification codes. Huntington Bancshares in Columbus, Ohio, has abandoned plans for now to equip its self-service banking centers with iris scanners, said William M. Randle, senior vice president and corporate marketing head at the bank.
Mr. Randle says biometrics may be most useful in conjunction with smart cards, but banks are waiting for the technology to become more reliable.
"The need for the applications is apparent, but they have to get down to a point where they are reliable, scalable, and inexpensive."
In contrast, old-fashioned fingerprinting has been popularized as a more acceptable, implementable, and cost-efficient means of fraud prevention, say bankers.
For one thing, consumers in most states are accustomed to being fingerprinted when they apply for driver's licenses or for government benefits, making the bank programs more palatable to the public than eye scanners or other technologies, say bankers.
Fingerprinting also costs substantially less than biometric products. A pad of special ink that does not rub off onto clothes costs $12.50 for ABA members and $15.60 for nonmembers, and there are discounts for bulk purchases, said an ABA spokeswoman. In addition, the ink pads do not require installations of special computer equipment, she said.
In contrast, a retina scanner costs about $1,800, including installation. The more experimental iris scanner costs over $5,000. And a fingerprint-imaging device costs about $500.
Most of these devices are still too large and unwieldy to complement the standard automated teller machine or teller window, noted Ms. Finn from the Gartner Group.
Bankers say they did not want to waste time waiting for the latest in biometric technology to reach a level of efficiency that would work on a broad scale.
"We began to see escalating losses as the criminal element saw opportunities with check washing and desktop publishing," said Bob Randolf, a former agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation and now vice president in security at BankAmerica Corp.'s Arizona affiliate.
"As banks, we needed to put our foot down."
BankAmerica, headquartered in San Francisco, started the fingerprinting program in 1994 through its Nevada affiliate branches and has just rolled out fingerprinting systemwide, said a spokeswoman.
Wells Fargo & Co. in San Francisco, which has run its program since 1995 in pilot mode, will roll out fingerprinting systemwide in March, said a spokeswoman. Great Western Financial Corp. in Chatsworth, Calif., already runs its program systemwide, said a spokesman.
Newer program participants include banks from Oregon to Florida. Pilots are scheduled to begin this spring in Minnesota, South Carolina, and New York, according to bank associations in those states.
Bankers are quick to point out that the fingerprints, placed on the front or back of a check to be cashed, will not be stored by the banks sponsoring the programs. They would be used only when a check bounces or shows other evidence of fraud. These checks would then be passed along to law enforcement officials to be investigated.
Fingerprinting brings the added benefit of knowing customers better in a world where interstate branching and huge bank behemoths are becoming a reality, say bankers.
"We looked at it initially as a deterrent," said Walter R. Heilner, vice president and manager of loss investigations at Wells Fargo's Arizona affiliate. "But we quickly realized that its real value was in proving who that person really was."
"With interstate branching, this is becoming more of an issue," he added.