It's a vexing problem for telemarketers: How do you sell to customers who don't have credit cards? You could wait for a check, of course, but the buying impulse might fade before the consumer gets around to mailing one. Or phone clerks could take down all the checking account information, such as the exact name and location of the customer's bank, but that's often a hassle.

Now, PhonChek Systems Inc. in Bethesda, Md., has simplified the process. Customers simply read off the string of digits at the bottom of one of their checks. The merchant faxes the digits to PhonChek, which uses them to identify the customer's bank. PhonChek then creates a check in the customer's name from a blank piece of paper and puts it through the system as if the customer originated it. "It's been absolutely the salvation of my company," says one PhonChek customer, Carl Nunley, owner of National Publishing Co., of Nashville, which sells a federal job information publication by phone.

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