Banks are besieged by staggering levels of international crime. Credit card fraud costs roughly $3 billion a year worldwide - half of that in the United States. Money laundering, most of it drug-related, moves $300 billion through U.S. banks each year.
These alarming numbers could get worse, law enforcement officials say, if government and private industry don't keep up with the technological sophistication of criminal networks.
Last week, the House Banking Committee was the latest of several congressional panels to hold hearings on the troubling influence of organized crime on the international banking system.
Though U.S. officials said they are matching the criminals in sophistication and technical prowess, they are having a hard time collecting evidence from institutions in many countries.
"This is particularly important in a world where the criminal and his victim may be linked only by two computer terminals thousands of miles apart," said Mark M. Richard, deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department's criminal division, at House Banking's hearing Wednesday.
During the hearing, House Banking Chairman Jim Leach unveiled a bill that would broaden laws against passing off fake financial documents. The bill also would enable law officers to seize credit card embossers and other devices used to commit fraud. Finally, Rep. Leach wants the penalty for counterfeiting increased to 25 years from 10 years.
Banking regulators have argued that anti-laundering treaties must require more countries to force institutions to collect and share comprehensive data on customers. France and Switzerland, for example, should be urged to ease strict bank secrecy laws that hinder criminal investigations, regulators said.
Another problem: Government cutbacks are reducing the presence of U.S. law enforcement officers and diplomats in some countries.
Despite these limitations, U.S. law enforcement officials are having an impact, training anti-laundering units in Russia, Hungary, and Poland. What's more, said Stanley E. Morris, director of Treasury's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, criminals are finding it harder to conceal their dirty money. He estimated that the cost of laundering cash has risen from 6% in the mid-1980s to more than 20% today.
But law enforcement officials can't do it all. Banks must recognize that dirty money drives out honest funds, officials said. To do their part, banks need to go beyond the transaction monitoring that is now the front- line barrier to criminals.