City Market fingerprinting payroll checks

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— The Steamboat Springs City Market grocery store has joined the ranks of retailers and banks nationwide that are fighting check fraud by requiring a fingerprint when cashing payroll checks and other third-party checks.

"We instituted the policy chain-wide on June 1," City Market spokeswoman Rhonda Toland said. "Particularly in today's world, phony IDs have been easy to duplicate. We only use the fingerprints when there is a situation of fraud or a problem that leads to prosecution."

Toland, who is based in Grand Junction, said the grocery chain conducted a pilot program there with the help of the fraud division of the Grand Junction Police Department.

The new fingerprinting policy does not apply to customers writing checks to City Market. Instead, it's meant to head off the growing number of fraud cases involving people signing over payroll checks, checks written against another business or federal tax refund checks.

When a case of check fraud arises, a fingerprint on the check provides incontrovertible evidence of who cashed the check, industry experts say.

The new City Market system played a role in a large case in Grand Junction involving 34 victims all over the Western Slope, Toland said. The alleged perpetrator was stealing business IDs and checks and creating his own checks on a printer.

A spokesperson for Safeway in Steamboat Springs said his store formerly used a fingerprint system, but has abandoned it for a check-scanning system maintained by Certegy Payroll services. The system checks a database for fraud-related issues.

Toland said City Market's system of fingerprinting check cashers doesn't use any messy ink.

"We use an inkless pad. The substance comes off your fingers really easily -- just dusts right off -- so it doesn't cause any problems that way," Toland said.

Not everyone approves of businesses taking customers' fingerprints, even if the practice does help combat check fraud. Scott McDonald, with an organization called Network USA, contends that the growing trend toward using fingerprints to discourage check fraud is eroding public resistance to invasion of citizens' privacy by the government.

Societal conditioning to giving up one's fingerprint at retail counters will inevitably lead to more and more personal data being tracked by government and companies, he argues.

The Libertarian Party staunchly opposes fingerprinting of law abiding citizens, even in the case of states such as Colorado, which require fingerprints as a condition of granting a drivers license.

Former Party Chairman Steve Dasbach fears the federal government could collect the prints and enter them to the FBI database.

"The government wants to fingerprint law-abiding citizens, just in case they commit a crime," Dasbach wrote in a position paper.

Toland said City Market's fingerprinting policy is designed to protect her company's customers as well as the company itself.

She cited the 34 entities that were victims of the Western Slope fraud case.

"As any one of those victims will tell you, it was not good for them having their checks passed all over the Western Slope," Toland said.

Lydia del Rossi is the president of a commercial check fingerprinting system called CrimeBite.

She said the practice of fingerprinting check cashers allows grocery stores to continue to offer the service of cashing payroll checks.

"When a cashed stolen or counterfeit check is taken to the local law enforcement agency, the computerized search can be successful in as little as seven minutes," she wrote on the company Web page.

The use of fingerprints nationwide is more pervasive at banks than at grocery stores.

Criminals who use high-tech, yet affordable, scanners and color laser printers are costing bankers billions.

Fingerprint systems allow personnel at branch banks to verify the identity of check cashers. It also deters criminals who are averse to being fingerprinted for obvious reasons.

The nation's largest grocery chain, Kroger, is City Market's parent company. Kroger has experimented with a system that allows customers to make transactions merely by having a fingerprint scanned.

A customer's prints are electronically linked with his or her photo ID, the store's discount card and either a debit or credit card.

-- To reach Tom Ross call 871-4205

or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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