North Dakota bankers are gearing up to fight telemarketing fraud like the scheme that bilked a 79-year-old woman out of $7,300 this summer.

"They told her she had won a substantial amount of money and she just needed to pay income taxes on it," said Frank P. Keogh, president and chief executive of $145 million-asset American State Bank and Trust Co., Williston.

After she wired the money, they called again, this time posing as consumer protection agents who needed more money to help nab the previous culprits.

She fell for that, too, and sent a check. But this time, the overeager criminals kept calling the bank to see if the check would clear. American State's bookkeepers became suspicious, notified police, and stopped the check.

"If we wouldn't have intervened, she would've lost another $3,500," Mr. Keogh said. "This unfortunate incident represents the fact that this telemarketing fraud is going on and can happen in our own community."

That's why the North Dakota Bankers Association and the state attorney general are embarking on a joint effort to alert bankers and consumers about telemarketing fraud schemes.

"If there's any one institution or business that could help, it's the bank," said Jim Schlosser, the bank trade group's executive vice president.

The campaign offers posters and statement stuffers that explain how to identify illegal telemarketing operations and how to intervene. Materials - except for the statement stuffers - are free to NDBA's member banks.

The program was developed after banks called the association about customers, most of them elderly, who had withdrawn large sums for questionable purposes.

The attorney general receives about 150 calls a day about telemarketing scams, Mr. Schlosser said.

Bank CEO Dale Dinger knows his customers aren't immune to fraud, Within the past year, a customer of his $54 million-asset First National Bank of Devil's Lake was urged to send money for free trip or gift.

The customer was skeptical, however, discussed the offer with a bank officer, and didn't lose any money.

"If we can heighten the awareness, it's more likely people will ask questions," as that customer did, said Mr. Dinger.

Charles Stowman, president and chief executive of $52 million-asset Farmers and Merchants Bank, Valley City, didn't know of such fraud affecting his customers, but believes it happens more than is reported because people are embarrassed to admit their mistakes.

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