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Canceled checks going high tech

Digital images give bank customers an electronic glimpse of any canceled check in minutes, not days.

[Times photo: Thomas M. Goethe]
Barbara Curts, a customer service manager at Bank of America in Tampa, accesses an image of a canceled check.

By JEFF HARRINGTON

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 11, 2001


Florida's biggest banks are turning high-tech to address the perennial No. 1 customer service issue: queries about canceled checks.

Bank of America this week is rolling out a digital check imaging system in its Florida branches that gives customers an instantaneous electronic glimpse of any canceled check.

Previously, customers had to wait three days or longer to receive photocopies of their checks.

First Union made a similar move last month after building up an archive of digital check images. The First Union branches in Florida, which will be renamed Wachovia after a merger with Wachovia Corp., offer visiting customers a faxed copy of the digital image of a check within 30 minutes.

"We are moving to the point where we will be able to print them out on PCs in the branches," spokeswoman Mary Beth Navarro said.

Bank of America's new in-branch system is already there. It promises to retrieve images of checks 60 days old or less within seconds and those of older checks within a few minutes. By viewing images of the front and back of a check, customers will be able to confirm they filled in the right amount on a check or verify when it was deposited and cleared the processing center.

"I think there will be a huge demand for this," bank spokeswoman Christina Beyer said, noting that 70,000 customers a week have been using check imaging in Georgia since Bank of America rolled out the program there.

Cathy Bessant, president of Bank of America's Florida operations, called check imaging a "faster, more convenient, customer-friendly way" of resolving issues over checks.

To the bank's benefit, it also cuts down on fraud by allowing immediate comparison of customer signatures to the digital images. And it's one more way to trim paperwork expenses after the megabank, like many others, has steered most of its customers away from receiving their canceled checks in the mail. A small percentage of Bank of America customers still receive the canceled checks, either as part of a package deal or by paying a $1-a-month service charge, Beyer said.

Both Bank of America and the new Wachovia intend to extend the digital imaging service to online banking customers by next year.

Ironically, one of the few banks that already offers a check imaging service to customers online (as well as in its branches) is the former Wachovia, which opened a handful of branches in the bay area prior to its merger with First Union.

Bank of America's move, though, promises to put check imaging on the map. The Charlotte, N.C., financial giant processes more than 40-million checks, deposit slips and other check-related items each day.

Under its new system, checks will be captured by digital image and stored at Viewpoint Archive Services, a joint venture established by Bank of America, J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. and IBM to ease the exchange of check images among banks.

Bank of America won't say how much it has invested in the upgrade but it hopes to reduce its check processing costs as much as 30 percent.

- Jeff Harrington can be reached at harrington@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3407.

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