Shoppers made to put thumbprints on credit card slips in war on fraud

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The Independent Online

Shoppers paying by cheque or credit card are having to leave their thumbprints behind in the latest scheme to combat high-street fraud.

Shoppers paying by cheque or credit card are having to leave their thumbprints behind in the latest scheme to combat high-street fraud.

The simplicity of the new security system, which is cheap and so far proving to be an effective deterrent, has delighted police and traders alike.

It is operating in about 1,000 stores across the country including 45 at the Bluewater complex in Kent, Europe's largest shopping centre.

Credit-card fraud has been a key growth area for criminals. In the 12 months to April, according to estimates, it rose to £226m - an increase from £189m the previous year.

But the thumbprint scheme perturbs human-rights campaigners, who say it is an infringement of civil liberties.

The system requires shoppers paying by cheque or credit card to press their thumbs on an inkless disc pad and leave a thumbprint on either the back of the cheque or the credit card slip. The pad costs £5 and lasts for 500 imprints.

Shops are refusing to accept credit cards or cheques from customers who who will not give a thumbprint.

In the case of fraudulent transactions, police can use the print and check it on the national fingerprint database, which contains five million prints. Research has found that 78 per cent of people who commit fraud already have a criminal record.

The pioneering system was first introduced from the US in the summer by Margaret Reid, a Scottish businesswoman based in Dunfermline, and is spreading rapidly up and down the country. Ms Reid, managing director of Thumbs Up Security Ltd, spotted its potential while on a holiday in Dallas when she was asked to leave her thumbprint behind when cashing a cheque.

"It's a massive deterrent," she explained. "It has been 100 per cent successful so far in the UK. In five months in British shops where the scheme is running, to date nobody has made a fraudulent transaction."

In the US, thumbprinting has been so successful that criminals have tried cutting their skin to evade detection - "Some fraudsters have been found to slice off the skin of their thumb, but we are not worried about it because it would be obvious on the print," Ms Reid said. Last week, shoppers at the Princes Quay shopping centre in Hull became the latest consumers to have to give a thumbprint as well as a cheque guarantee card. The scheme is already operating in large parts of Kent and in some areas of London.

Humberside police were quick to point out that the thumbprints would not form a national database. PC Dave Watson, the Humberside force's crime-prevention officer, said: "Law-abiding customers need not fear this scheme. The process is simple and they are only verifying that they are the genuine holders of the credit card or cheque.

"There will be a knock-on effect; for example, an impact on burglary and theft as credit cards and cheques become virtually useless to the thief because of a high chance of detection of fraud."

However, Liberty, the civil-rights organisation, expressed concern. "What it means is that it leaves a lot of personal information sitting around on cheques and there is a huge potential for abuse," said Deborah Clark, Liberty's director of public affairs.

She feared that the scheme could lead to fingerprint scans replacing signatures as the means of security identification which in turn could lead to a national identity scheme via the back door.

"It is the tip of the iceberg," said Ms Clark. "If the police have access to these records and there is a crime that has been committed, then that is one thing. But if banks were holding databases of fingerprints that is a completely different matter."