According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), consumers reported losing close to $8.8 billion to fraud in 2022, a 30% jump over the previous year. Many of people’s losses were the result of various types of bank account fraud.
Crooks are getting ever more sophisticated in the ways they steal money from financial institutions or their account holders. There are few things as upsetting as seeing your bank account emptied or your credit card used for thousands of dollars in purchases by a scammer.
So if you have a financial life, you’ll want to be on alert and do what you can to protect yourself and your hard-earned money. Here, we’ll help you by sharing:
• What bank fraud is
• Types of bank fraud
• How banks respond to fraud
• Penalties for bank fraud
• How to avoid bank fraud
What Is Bank Fraud?
Bank fraud is the use of deceptive, often illegal means to steal money, assets, or other property owned or held by a financial institution. It also entails stealing money from people just like you, who keep money on deposit or use other financial products at banks.
Bank fraud also includes being defrauded of money by criminals who pose as employees of a financial institution.
Bank fraud is different from bank robbery; with fraud, thieves use schemes or deception to snag funds illegally, versus perpetrating outright theft.
Types of Bank Fraud
Unfortunately, bank fraud comes in many varieties, all the better to fool financial institutions and consumers. The law provides a broad definition of bank fraud, and several of these actions can be considered for federal prosecution.
Let’s take a look at the six most common types of fraud in banks. Money scams are all too common today; knowledge can help protect you and your funds.
Forgery includes all forms of using a false signature or other details on financial documents. This includes when a person changes the name, signature, or other information on a check, including the amount (think adding a zero — or two or three). Forgery is also the term used for filling out a blank check or printing fraudulent checks with another person’s account number or a number for a non-existent account.
2. Fraudulent Loans
It is a crime when someone uses a false identity to obtain a loan. This can happen when, say, identity thieves take out loans using victims’ personal and financial information. Another type of fraudulent loan: When a person takes out a loan with the intention of filing for bankruptcy soon thereafter. This can happen when a dishonest business person works with a complicit bank officer to get a loan. The borrower then declares bankruptcy, often leaving the bank on the hook for the money borrowed.
Fraudulent loans also occur when someone falsifies answers on a personal or business loan application, usually in an effort to improve their chances of qualifying for the loan. An individual may try to hide a blemished credit history, for example, or a business may use accounting fraud to paint a more positive financial picture. As you might guess, this is criminal activity and can leave the lending bank in a bad situation.
3. Bank Impersonation and Internet Bank Fraud
When a person or group of people set up a fake financial institution, that’s known as bank impersonation. When such thieves hack into your account and steal money, whether by impersonation or otherwise, that’s internet bank fraud. Typically, this kind of crime is usually committed by creating a website designed to lure people into depositing funds.
Fake websites like this can also trick you into downloading computer viruses that can steal your personal information. These details are then used to rob you of your hard-earned money
Many phishing schemes also come under the umbrella of bank impersonation or internet bank fraud. In these crimes, consumers receive forged emails impersonating an online bank; they then direct the unwitting recipient to a forged website that looks like a legitimate bank site. From there, the bogus site will ask the user to update personal information. That information can be used for identity theft and other crimes.
4. Stolen Checks
Stealing checks is a crime that plays out just as it sounds. Someone at, say, the post office, a company’s payroll department, or anybody else with access to checks may steal those checks. From there, they can open a false bank account, write checks (depleting the account holder’s cash), and deposit them. The cash is then available for them to use as they desire.
5. Money Laundering
This term is used to describe the process criminals use to hide an illegal (or “dirty”) source of income — say from illegal drug smuggling or gambling operations — through a complex series of transfers. These transactions are designed to make the “dirty” money look legitimate, or “clean,” hence the term money laundering. A bit of trivia: Many people believe the term money laundering comes from gangster Al Capone’s habit of using his chain of laundromats to “launder” his illegal cash. This tale however probably isn’t true.
Now, here’s how the crime of money laundering can work: Often the “dirty” money is first deposited into a bank through a restaurant or other legitimate business. Let’s say that business actually did $1,000 worth of sales in a single day but they say they did $2,000. They then deposit the “real” $1,000 they earned plus the same amount of “dirty” money.
Next, to avoid taxes and detection, the money is distributed to other legitimate businesses or complicit companies, or is otherwise subjected to bookkeeping trickery. Multiple transactions can make the money hard to trace, and so it becomes “clean” enough to be used as the fraudster likes.
Banks may unwittingly or possibly complicitly play a role in many stages of money laundering, which is a severe form of fraud.
6. Credit Card Fraud
This term covers a slew of crimes; it refers to all fraudulent payments made with a credit or debit card. The bogus payments may be used to purchase goods and services, to withdraw funds from the account, or to make payments to another account controlled by a criminal. Fraud may happen by stealing the actual credit or debit card or by illegally obtaining the cardholder’s account and personal information.
The latter has become more common as online shopping and bill paying has soared, since there is no longer a need to have a physical card to make purchases. This is why you can still be in possession of your plastic, but be having all sorts of false charges turn up on your statement. As long as criminals can obtain enough personal information about an individual, they can use that information to open new credit card accounts or tamper with existing accounts.
Fortunately, thanks to the Fair Credit Billing Act, your liability should be capped at $50.
How Do Banks Recover Money That Was Fraudulently Taken?
When bank security personnel notice unusual transactions or a customer reports suspicious account activity, banks will typically conduct an investigation. Their goal: To confirm whether fraud exists and, if so, to uncover its details and take legal action against the perpetrators. Once a bank has determined fraud has taken place, most banks will refund stolen funds to customers. This happens as long as it is clear the customer is not an accessory to the crime or was not negligent with account security. In addition, you may want to report the crime to the authorities so they can work on finding and prosecuting those who stole your money. Some banks may require this, in fact, as a step towards catching the criminals.
What to do if you, the consumer, is defrauded of funds? Contact your financial institution’s fraud department and share what has happened. The representative will walk you through the steps required. Remember, the more quickly you alert your bank to any issues or report identity theft, the more likely you are not to lose any money.
Prosecuting fraud is complicated, time-consuming, and unfortunately sometimes impossible. As a result, many banks put extensive efforts into technological security solutions. These card fraud protection measures can help identify fraud quickly to avoid large losses as well as ward off many types of criminal activity in the first place.
Penalties for Bank Fraud
Bank fraud is a serious crime with serious penalties. How serious depends on how much money was stolen and what type of illegal activity was used to steal the money. It must also be proven that a person charged with bank fraud willfully and knowingly committed the crime. A money laundering conviction could result in:
• A fine of up to $500,000 or twice the value of the property involved in the transaction, whichever amount is greater.
• A sentence of up to 20 years in prison.
When bank fraud of other sorts is involved, the penalties can be worse still, according to the FDIC :
• A fine up to one million dollars
• A prison sentence of as long as 30 years
How to Avoid Bank Fraud
There are several steps you can take to avoid having money stolen from your accounts in a bank fraud scheme. Here are some of the most important.
• Check your account activity regularly. With online banking, this is easy to do. It’s a good idea to log in at least once a week so you evaluate your bank accounts and your debit card and credit card histories. Report any unexpected or suspicious transactions. While you’re at it, why not make sure your bank offers debit card fraud protection, too? It’s important to secure that aspect of your banking.
• Keep your PIN and passwords secret. Do not give them to anyone and never write them down in an email or text message that could be easily intercepted. Avoid using public wifi networks for any banking, from checking your balance to paying bills. You could be leaving yourself vulnerable.
• Use a strong password for online banking. And everything else for that matter. Remember to use numbers, capital letters and symbols. Change passwords regularly, and please: Don’t reuse passwords.
• Beware phishing schemes. Do not give out your account information over the phone or through email. Anyone legitimate would not be asking for account information by either means. Don’t click links embedded in emails either; they could lead to a fraudulent website posing as your bank. If you receive an email that looks as if it is legitimately from your bank, it’s still better to visit your bank’s website and proceed from any message you receive there.
• Keep your computer protected. Use anti-virus protection software, firewalls, and spyware blockers to protect your electronic information. Make sure you keep your computer updated with the most recent security upgrades.
Bank fraud is a criminal activity that can leave you with a big mess to clean up: It can put you at risk for losing money and facing identity theft. Understanding the different types of bank fraud is one important step; knowing how to secure your personal financial information is another one. These moves can help protect you from being a victim.
When you open a bank account with SoFi, we work overtime to protect your money. Sign up for our Checking and Savings account with direct deposit, and you’ll earn a competitive APY. What’s more, you won’t pay any of the usual charges like account, monthly, and minimum balance fees.
How does bank fraud happen?
Bank fraud happens when criminals use deceptive means to steal money, assets, or property owned or held by a financial institution, including banks. It is also considered bank fraud when thieves steal money from customer accounts by posing as a bank or other financial institution or by using personal financial information obtained through identity theft.
How do banks recover money from a scammer?
It is challenging for banks to recover money from a scammer. They can seek to unravel who committed the crime and, with the help of law enforcement, prosecute those individuals. Because this is often so difficult, though, banks also are implementing new, technologically advanced ways of preventing and detecting fraud. This allows them to better protect their account holders.
Photo credit: iStock/Damir Khabirov
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