STAND YOUR GROUND: TeleCheck - | Lufkin and Nacogdoches, Texas


Its web site boasts that TeleCheck provides check verification services at the point of sale for more than 350,000 retailers, banks and grocery stores.

But in the last three years, the Houston-based company has racked up 657 complaints nationwide to the Better Business Bureau about its customer service and alleged inaccurate reporting on consumers' accounts. 

In 2005, West Virginia Attorney General Darrell McGraw settled a 5-year-old lawsuit against TeleCheck.  According to McGraw, TeleCheck agreed to pay the state $450,000 and file a compliance plan detailing its consumer reporting practices after McGraw received complaints from consumers whose checks were "declined without understandable cause" and who were "experiencing undue delay in the investigation and removal of inaccurate information in TeleCheck's database."

Just last month, Barbara Southwell wrote a $69 check at an East Memphis grocery store that uses TeleCheck.  Her check -- written on a 30-year-old account with plenty of funds -- was declined.

The store's manager gave Southwell TeleCheck's customer service number.  She says an agent went over a checklist with her:  Low-number check?  New account?  Check written out of sequence?  Her circumstances met none of TeleCheck's criteria.

She says a local TeleCheck vendor eventually ran a trace on her account, going back 15 years.

"He said there was no reason that he could find anywhere why that check should not have gone through," she says.

Nine years ago, Vel Grundy's identity and checks were stolen.  The Whitehaven woman did everything right -- filed a police report, alerted the credit bureaus, closed her checking account and opened a new one.  She says most stores readily accepted checks written on her new account.

"But at the stores that use TeleCheck, I was unable to (write checks)," says Grundy.  "They wouldn't take my check anymore."

Grundy says as late as last year, at least one retailer that uses TeleCheck still wouldn't accept her checks.

Eight years after her identity was stolen.

"You don't know when you're going to walk into a store that has TeleCheck that's not going to take your check, which is embarrassing because you're standing in line and people think you don't have funds, and it's not about that at all," she says.

In an e-mail, Currid wrote, "TeleCheck is in good standing with the Better Business Bureau and maintains robust processes designed to resolve consumer issues." 

Currid did not address the West Virginia attorney general's settlement.

Mid-South BBB President Randy Hutchinson acknowledges that TeleCheck does have a "large" volume of complaints, but he confirms it is indeed a member of the bureau in good standing.  He says TeleCheck is accredited and has a stellar reputation of addressing complaints, although he shares our concerns about the West Virginia lawsuit.

"Obviously, it is a concern. Government actions are always a concern," Hutchinson says, "But I have to tell you, sometimes the biggest companies are more prone to get those.

"If there wasn't some company like TeleCheck or their competitors willing to verify -- and in some cases, they're willing to guarantee the check -- if they weren't there, there would be far fewer merchants who would be willing to accept checks as payment, and that's going to inconvenience a whole heck of a lot of people."

Hutchinson has these recommendations for consumers who have trouble with TeleCheck at their favorite retailers:

* Be prepared to use an alternative form of payment:  credit card, debit card or cash.

* Many problems occur because an account number is keyed incorrectly at the merchant location.  Have the cashier verify the number if your check is declined.

* Understand that TeleCheck generally does not have access to your bank balance.  The system's decision to decline a check may be based on past bad checks or other account problems.

* If you regularly shop the retailer where the check is declined, try to get the store's management involved in resolving the problem.  They may have more leverage.

* COMPLAIN QUICKLY.  People who knowingly write bad checks don't complain, so complaining quickly may cause TeleCheck to be more cooperative.

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