WASHINGTON -- Check fraud at banks is soaring as counterfeiters enter the computer age.

The American Bankers Association reported Wednesday that check fraud swelled by 136% in the two years through 1993, to 1.27 million cases.

Bank losses from check fraud jumped 43% to $815 million during the two-year period, the industry group said.

The ABA attributed the increase in fraud primarily to the availability to forgers of inexpensive desktop publishing software and laser printing equipment.

"You can acquire the equipment to be a professional counterfeiter for less than $3,000," said Brace Brett, senior vice president of Signet Bank, Vienna, Va., and chairman of ABA's check fraud task force.

Mr. Brett added that these counterfeiters are professionals.

"The banking system is under attack by organized crime," Mr. Brett said.

Ronald Dick, unit chief for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, said, "Check fraud is the [financial] crime of the '90s."

The ABA also cited customers' not properly safeguarding account information for the increase in check fraud.

Finally, to comply with government clearing deadlines, bankers are not reviewing checks for fraud as thoroughly as they should, ABA found.

If banks had another day to clear checks, Mr. Brett said, they could scrutinize 30% more of them.

The ABA's new figures compare with 1991, the last year ABA surveyed its members on check fraud. That year, 537,000 fraud cases cost banks $568 million.

With 60 million checks processed every year, it is tough for the industry to uncover fraud.

"Our attempts to spot a fraudulent check is like looking for a needle in a haystack," said Mr. Brett.

The survey indicated that the problem is widespread, shared by small and large banks in all parts of the country. But large banks and banks in the Northeast were hit hardest.

More than 80% of Northeast banks suffered losses, while just 50% of the banks in the Midwest did.

Almost 90% of banks with more than $5 billion of assets lost money to check fraud last year. These banks reported 210 cases per bank, with average losses of $387,211.

By contrast, only 54% of banks with $500 million of assets or less reported losses. Small banks reported a median of four fraud cases, with a loss of $1,728 per bank.

Correspondingly, larger banks also have been more willing to invest in prevention devices and techniques.

Mr. Nielsen writes for Medill News Service.

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