Today he would be referred to as a tavern owner, but he still calls himself an old-fashioned saloonkeeper.

"Most of my customers get some kind of government check - welfare, Social Security, something like that," he told me about three weeks ago. "At the end of the month, business is dead here. But on the first, I go to the bank and borrow a lot of money, because I know my customers will want me to cash their government checks.

"After they leave my place, teenagers gang up on the old ones and the cripples - beat them up and take their money. The government could cut way down on these crimes if it would stagger the payments throughout the month instead of sending out all the checks on the first. But nobody seems to care."

I told him it is easier to break into Fort Knox than to persuade a government agency to reprogram its computers and procedures.

The subject of crimes related to government checks lay dormant in my mind until Wednesday, when I saw an article on our op-ed page by Chairman Claude Pepper (D-Fla.) and two of his colleagues on the House Select Committee on Aging.

The article, based on evidence presented to the committee, went far beyond what the saloonkeeper had told me. It said that old people are being systematically beaten and robbed after cashing their government checks.It suggested that the government could help ease the situation.

The elderly should be taught to be more cautious in handling their money. Community crime-prevention programs, such as escort services, might help. Police should be trained to give closer attention to the elderly. A pending House measure would appropriate $12 million to hire security guards and to install TV monitors and better locks in housing for the elderly.

But one thing was missing from the article. It said nothing about persuading people to deposit their government checks in bank accounts, or teaching them to write checks instead of carrying around so much cash.

Inquiries among local bankers led me to Lee A. Bindseil in Baltimore. He is executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Clearinghouse Association and an expert in electronic funds transfer - EFT for short.

"No question about it," Bindseil said. "We'd all be better off if the government sent each person's money to his bank instead of mailing out individual checks. But it's going to take a long time to get people accustomed to that simple change.

"Remember when employers first began paying their employes by check instead of in hard cash? There was great resistance at first, and it took a long time for the paycheck to become accepted. Now we're going through the same thing with EFT."

Why do people resist EFT" "Some think it invades their privacy. Some are afraid to deal with computers because they've had a bad experience with computer errors. Some workers don't want their wives or husbands to know how much they earn. In at least one case, a union has resisted switching to EFT because it has a contract clause that gives their people an hour and a half of paid time to go to the bank to cash their checks. If the money is automatically deposited for them, they would lose that benefit."

Last December, Rep. Pepper wrote a letter to Rep. Frank Annunzio (D-Ill.) of the House Banking Committee in which he said he shared Annunzio's concern about credit card abuses and computerized EFT snafus. To learn whether Pepper's views on EFT extend to checks issued to the elderly, I called Pepper, who is now in Miami. I asked him if the committee has done anything to encourage people to write checks instead of handling cash.

"We haven't done enough," he conceded. "That's something we want to look at when we get back to Washington. We don't want to force people to open bank accounts if they're afraid of banks. And we ourselves worry about EFT and computerized errors. But we also worry about government checks that are stolen from mailboxes, and about people whose bones are broken because they are carrying cash. What we need is an educational movement to persuade the elderly to open accounts in banks that make no charge for checking, and that's something every citizen can help us with. If your kinfolk are getting a government check, take an interest in how they handle it. Help them help themselves."

It's a good thought. One-on-one persuasion might be more effective than government programs.