After facing down opponents in Georgia, First Union Corp. is up against New Jerseyans outraged about its thumbprinting of noncustomers who want to cash checks.
Two state legislators are asking municipal, county, and state agencies to pull all public funds out of the 317 First Union bank branches in New Jersey. That could cost the company hundreds of millions of dollars in deposits.
Union County, in central New Jersey, plans to move about $2.5 million out of its various First Union accounts next week. Also, $12 million to $13 million of the county's certificates of deposit will be rebid when they mature, and First Union will be excluded from the bidding, according to Union County Finance Director Larry Caroselli.
"There are a lot of people that are angry," said Assemblyman Neil Cohen, a Democrat who represents the state's 20th District, which includes Union County. "What we're going to do is convince municipalities and counties to withdraw their money from First Union Bank."
Paul Levine, a spokesman for First Union, said it could lose substantial deposits if Assemblyman Cohen's initiative were successful. But First Union will not back down, Mr. Levine said.
"The program has merit, it works, and it's going to remain in place," he said.
Charlotte, N.C-based First Union Corp. is but one of many banking companies around the country that require thumb-prints from people who want to cash checks but don't have accounts.
The program, whose popularity among banks is growing, is meant to deter people from cashing fraudulent checks, bankers say. Check fraud amounts to about $1 billion a year in losses, according to industry estimates.
But as First Union has found out recently, thumbprinting is not popular.
It introduced thumbprinting in New Jersey in April. A month later Assemblyman Cohen and Assemblywoman Nia Gill introduced legislation to require state public bodies to move money out of First Union.
The legislators will continue to push the legislation when the General Assembly resumes in September, said Assemblyman Cohen. The legislation would also affect Pittsburgh-based Mellon Bank Corp., which requires thumbprinting in its five New Jersey banking offices.
At the legislators' urging Union County decided to move its money, agreeing that First Union's thumbprinting policy is an invasion of privacy. County officials met with First Union officials to negotiate a change in the policy but were unsuccessful, said Mr. Caroselli.
"There is just a general philosophical difference over whether this is right or not," he said.
Ocean County, N.J., threatened to pull some $50 million of deposits but was placated by First Union's agreement to issue photo ID cards for about 1,600 county employees who wished to cash their payroll checks at First Union branches.
"We agreed to relax the requirements for that special population," said Mr. Levine. But First Union doesn't plan to extend the exception, he said.
Opponents of the First Union policy say it is meant less as protection against fraud than as a way to make people open bank accounts.
"They are using this as a pretext," said Assemblyman Cohen. "This is not about security. This is not about fraud. This is all about getting more accounts. Then the bank gets to hold your money and charge you for checks and ATM withdrawals and maintenance fees."
But First Union's Mr. Levine denied this and said check fraud has been "a huge problem." Since thumbprinting was introduced, would-be crooks have been deterred and check-cashing fraud losses have dropped about 40% in the First Union franchise, he said.
First Union ran into similar trouble in Georgia after introducing thumbprinting there in January. Two bills introduced in the General Assembly were designed to thwart First Union, the first company to require thumbprinting in the state. Though the bills did not pass, some legislators are vowing to continue the fight.
First Union now has introduced thumbprinting throughout its franchise except in Tennessee. Mr. Levine said he did not know when it would be introduced there.