POLICE and retailers backed a scheme which will help shops across Darlington deter fraudsters last night.

Every time shoppers use a credit card, debit card or a cheque to pay for goods, they will be asked to leave a thumb print so they can be traced and identified if the transaction proves illegal.

The scheme has been introduced to the town by Bill Lippett, head of security at the Cornmill Shopping Centre, in partnership with Durham Agency Against Crime (DAAC). It has proved successful in other areas of Britain.

Every store in the centre has been given a kit, which uses an ink-free pad so shoppers are not left with stained thumbs.

The scheme will also cover more than 80 other shops as part of the town's Crime Net scheme.

When used elsewhere, the Thumbprint Signature Program has been seen to reduce such fraud by about 70 per cent.

Organisers insist the prints are kept and disposed of in the same manner as normal transaction slips or cheques and police do not get a copy unless a criminal investigation is being conducted.

Mr Lippett said the programme was voluntary and anyone who refused could be credit checked in other ways.

"As many as 90 per cent of people in other areas where this has been tried have had no objection," he said.

If a person carried out such a fraud, it would probably not be the first time they had done so, and their prints would be on record, he said.

All of the 150-plus shops taking part in the scheme will also be given a notice to put in the window to warn criminals that the scheme is in operation.

Chief Inspector Barry Knevitt, of Darlington police, said: "It's about prevention, not detection, but obviously we will get detection if people do commit such offences."

DAAC Chief Inspector Tim Wilson said: "The police will never retain the fingerprints we obtain unless it is a criminal inquiry."

He said the closed-circuit television system in operation throughout Darlington town centre would complement the scheme.

"They will work together in deterring credit card thieves from coming into the area as credit card thieves are often travelling criminals," he said.

Joan Vallis, manager of Northern Electric's showroom in the Cornmill Centre, said: "I think the scheme is actually a deterrent more than anything else. It's going to benefit the customer and also the companies that actually take it on board.