When Maggie Talbot attended a recent downtown wine function, she wrote a check to pay for the tickets, just as she has in previous years.
This time, though, she was asked to place her right thumbprint on the check. She didn't like it.
"It was degrading, disrespectful and an out-and-out insult," Talbot said. "I don't mind giving it to the DMV, but this is too much, especially for a $40 check."
The print is part of Operation Thumbprint, a program the Lodi Police Department launched two months ago in an effort to fight check fraud and forgery.
Using an inkless pad, the check writer places a right thumbprint on the check, and the clerk then initials it. That way, police say, the evidence will hold up in court long after the clerk has forgotten the face of the check writer.
The recent School Street Stroll, sponsored by the Lodi Chamber of Commerce, sold tickets for $20 each and about 40 people paid by check, said Marilyn Storey, executive director of the chamber. Except for Talbot, nobody complained. Some did, however, wonder why a thumbprint was needed.
"If someone stole your checkbook, they could walk into the chamber and write a check. I don't know all 60,000 people in this city," Storey said.
If the check is a fraud and the suspect is caught, "I have to stand up in court and swear that I took a check. By the time a defense attorney gets through with me, I'm not even sure of my name anymore," she added.
If her initials were on the check and the thumbprint matched the suspect, Storey said, the odds are higher that the case will hold up in court.
Last year, officers handled 373 forgery, fraud and identity theft cases, and only a few resulted in convictions, police said.
But if clerks already ask for identification and a telephone number, and now they require a thumbprint, what next? That's what concerns Beth Givens, director of the San Diego-based Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.
"I'm no longer as concerned about inkpad prints as I am about electronic thumbprints," she said, explaining that electronic information can quickly be passed to numerous computers, while it's much harder to misuse a fingerprint on a single check.
The nonprofit organization works to protect privacy and often partners with the American Civil Liberties Union. Regarding Operation Thumbprint, Givens sees both benefits and drawbacks, since the program's goal is actually to protect people from fraud -- something that isn't quickly fixed once it happens.
"If you're a victim of check fraud, you have a lot of work to do. You have to fill out an affidavit for each check," Givens said.
For thieves, a stolen purse can provide a book full of blank checks, along with credit cards and a drivers' license, all bearing the same name that appears on the checks. Drivers license photos don't always look exactly like the real person, so if the thief or a co-conspirator happens to look slightly like the person in the photo, the rest is easy.
"Some of the larger stores like Mervyn's, they take a beating. And then they pass the costs on to us," said Storey, who hopes to see Operation Thumbprint expand to include more businesses.
Lodi Police Sgt. Steven Price, who helped get the program off the ground, said he's heard no complaints. If someone doesn't want to write a check, he said, automatic teller machines are nearly always close by.
Talbot said she writes checks at local businesses and isn't asked for a thumbprint. When she said she told her friends about her experience, Talbot said they agreed the program sounded extreme.
Talbot doesn't plan on taking legal action, but she is spreading the word in an effort to get enough negative publicity so that Operation Thumbprint ends.
That's what has happened elsewhere, Givens said, because merchants don't want to risk offending customers.
"I'm really troubled by the absolutist approach where everybody is printed. It doesn't really make sense to offend your long-term and loyal customers by fingerprinting them," she said. "On the other hand, I do know there is a problem with counterfeit checks."
Contact reporter Layla Bohm at firstname.lastname@example.org.