Last November, Mayo Clinic neurologist Mary Zupanc learned strangers had secretly mailed a change of address form to her post office. Armed with nothing more than a forged signature, the strangers gained control of Ms. Zupanc's bank accounts, creating another victim of a new type of financial crime - "account takeover."
First uncovered in 1994, account takeover is among several new types of financial fraud plaguing the consumer finance industry. Because criminals are rapidly adapting to the financial industry's technological advances, lawmakers are mulling new legislation that could help crime fighters keep pace.
Account takeover occurs when a criminal has enough information to call an individual's bank, change the victim's address and phone number, order new credit cards and checks, and even empty bank and retirement accounts.
Other increasingly prevalent types of fraud involve mail or telephone orders for credit cards, unauthorized debits of checking accounts, and wire advances to phony identities. Some victims may even find unauthorized purchases of telecommunications equipment on their telephone bills.
These new types of fraud highlight the dilemma faced by banks and credit card companies: once an effective remedy to one type of crime is found, more sophisticated scams pop up.
"Despite each battle we win, new types of fraud emerge, bringing with them new and increasingly difficult challenges," said Joel S. Lisker, senior vice president for security and risk management for MasterCard International.
Despite the industry's obvious interest in fighting fraud, financial crime victims at an April 15 House Banking Committee hearing were skeptical.
Ms. Zupanc said credit bureaus were disinterested when she tried to clear up her problems, and the FBI told her initially that it would not investigate her case because she lost less than $50,000. Credit card companies and her bank told Ms. Zupanc the possibility of fraud is the cost of doing business efficiently.
"I resent the fact that I saw complacency and bureaucratic runaround," Ms. Zupanc testified.
Also at the hearing, MasterCard and its rival Visa said law enforcement officials need help from Congress.
Dennis Brosan, Visa's director of fraud control, said his company supports a bill introduced in March by House Banking Committee Chairman Jim Leach. The measure would toughen penalties for financial fraud.
Mr. Lisker asked lawmakers to outlaw underground Internet software going by names like Credit Master and Credit Wizard, which allow criminals to generate valid credit card numbers.
Rep. Leach agreed that more legislation may be necessary if the government is going to battle financial fraud more effectively. He called for more coordination between local and federal officials and wants the FBI to tackle small ripoffs, in the hope of smashing multi-million-dollar crime rings.
Although quick to deflect any charge that his company is lackadaisical about fraud, Mr. Lisker pointed out that fraud represents less than nine one-hundredths of 1% of MasterCard's worldwide sales volume.