New York-area banks are losing less to check fraud, possibly bucking a national trend, according to the New York Clearing House Association.

The clearing house's 10 member banks, including Chase Manhattan Corp. and Citicorp, reported losing $16 million to check fraud in the first six months of this year compared with $24 million during the same period of 1996.

This decline continues a trend among New York-area banks. Losses for all of last year dropped 24%, to $54 million, from the 1995 total.

Up-to-date check fraud numbers for the entire industry are not available from organizations that have issued them in the past. But industry observers said bankers generally assume check fraud has continued to rise, as it did in the early part of this decade.

"Most bankers would be surprised to see figures have gone down," said John Hall, spokesman for the American Bankers Association, which does periodic check fraud surveys.

The last report issued by the ABA, in 1993, said the annual check fraud loss for U.S. banks was $813 million, but many in the industry believe actual losses were much higher.

With advances in desktop printing, creating bogus checks has gotten easier, and criminals are taking advantage of this, experts said.

But in recent years, financial institutions nationwide have been extra zealous about fighting fraud, and the New York Clearing House numbers may be an indication that the efforts are paying off.

An increasing number of institutions participate in shared data bases that list bank accounts that have been closed. In addition, many offer corporate customers positive pay services, which let the customer review, on-line, suspect checks written against their accounts.

"From what I'm reading and seeing, these programs are having an impact," said Joseph M. Fahed, regional security manager for Crestar Financial Corp. and an ABA check fraud task force member.

Henry Farrar, senior vice president at the New York Clearing House, added, "Information is the key to attacking fraud. You can't fix these problems if you don't know what's happening."

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