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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, May 11, 2006

You can resist a request for personal data

By Greg Wiles
Advertiser Columnist

Q. I was paying a bill with a check and was asked to provide a driver's license number and date of birth. I don't want to have this information recorded on the check, especially if it is being processed by an out-of-state company. Can I refuse to produce these? What are my rights?

A. This is a question that's arising more and more as people worry about identity theft.

That said, there doesn't appear to be any law in Hawai'i preventing merchants from asking and jotting down this information.

Similarly, there's nothing preventing you from telling the business you don't want that information written on the check. The merchant can then choose to either reject or complete the transaction.

"If someone asks for personal information, say you aren't willing to provide it and see what happens," said Stephen Levins, head of the state Office of Consumer Protection.

"If the person is reluctant to provide that information, they should just tell the clerk that."

Levins said there are good reasons why a merchant might request this information, including making sure they aren't taking a stolen check.

"In many instances, it's prudent for the store to ask for some identification," he said.

If you are paying in person a bill received in the mail, you might also point out that you wouldn't provide the information if you were sending a check to them.

The issue of scribbling personal information on checks is something that produces many complaints at the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a nonprofit organization based in San Diego. Beth Givens, clearinghouse director, said in an e-mail that she's received inquiries about the date-of-birth issue, but many more about driver's license numbers.

According to the organization, at least 24 states have laws spelling out what merchants can ask for or write down when you make purchases with checks or credit cards. Hawai'i isn't on that list.

California, for example, prevents retailers from jotting down credit-card numbers on checks in most transactions, and limits what information can be obtained when using a credit card to what's given on the front of the card.

California law does allow merchants to write down driver's license numbers or state ID numbers on checks.

Givens said you might ask where the requirement for date of birth comes from. If it is the merchant's check processor, you might ask if the practice is still required or is a holdover from the past.

Bank of Hawaii only requires merchants to submit account numbers, routing codes and the amount when it processes a check, spokesman Stafford Kiguchi said. He said the bank also recommends customers ordering new checks keep the amount of personal information to a minimum, such as just a name and address.

One possible alternative, if you're worried about your driver's license number falling into the wrong hands, is to get a state ID card. Like the driver's license, the card includes a picture, your address, height and weight, but uses a different identification number.

They are issued through the state Criminal Justice Data Center and cost $15.

Another alternative is getting a card from the store that you flash when cashing a check. If the store is adamant about writing down your information on a check, use a credit card.

And if all else fails, use cash.

Do you have a question about personal finance, taxes or other money matters? Reach Akamai Money columnist Greg Wiles at 525-8088 or gwiles@honoluluadvertiser.com