Wisconsin lawmakers are considering legislation that would stiffen penalties for crimes against financial institutions and their customers and broaden the definition of fraud so that more types of crimes could be prosecuted.
With bank chief executives reporting an increase in financial-related crimes, lawmakers last week introduced a bill that would double the maximum fines for theft, fraud, or robbery to $50,000 and increase maximum jail terms from 10 years to 15 years.
The law would apply only to financial institutions; penalties would remain as they are for similar crimes against other types of companies.
Kurt Bauer, the president and CEO of the Wisconsin Bankers Association, said financial institutions need special laws because they are more vulnerable to theft and fraud than most other businesses.
The bill would also designate fraud against financial institutions as its own type of crime.
Fraud against a bank gets the same treatment as fraud against a law firm or a contracting company in Wisconsin. This allows some criminals to escape prosecution or conviction because their crimes are hard to define as fraud.
Under the proposed law, prosecutors could file charges based on specific statutes rather than try to find where and how a crime might fit under the general definition of fraud. They could also ask for harsher sentences for these types of fraud than under the general statute, much like they might request harsher sentences for an armed robbery than an unarmed robbery.
Mr. Bauer said the bill was drafted with the help of bankers and prosecutors.
Last month the trade group released the results of a survey of 146 Wisconsin bank chief executives. Forty-six percent said they had noticed a "slight increase" in crime and 28% said it had "increased significantly" in the previous six months, the report said.
"Basically what we heard from our bankers and from prosecutors," Mr. Bauer said, was that "the statute doesn't specifically address something, so it was difficult to have a charge stick."
He said the bill would give prosecutors more options when pressing charges.
For example, borrowers overstating the value of their collateral could be charged specifically for loan fraud, not general fraud, and would therefore face stiffer penalties.
Wisconsin is not the only state seeking tougher penalties for financial fraud.
Mathew Street, the deputy general counsel at the American Bankers Association, said many state legislatures have toughened their identity-theft laws over the past three years. What is unique about the Wisconsin bill, he said, is that it tries to help banks fight crimes that are not quite covered by current statutes.
"It's a good idea to look at how banks like any other business are protected and how banks unlike any other business ought to be protected," Mr. Street said.
Just having laws on the books is not always enough. Three years ago the Arizona Bankers Association helped an identity-theft bill win passage. Like the Wisconsin law, it specifies certain acts as crimes even though they may have been covered under other statutes before.
For example, it is now a crime to steal a business' identity in Arizona. And aggravated identity theft - taking the identities of five or more people or causing financial damage of $3,000 or more - is its own crime, said Tanya Wheeless, the president and CEO of the Arizona Bankers Association.
Creating the law was not a problem, but enforcing it has been, Ms. Wheeless said. The police and prosecutors want to lock up the criminals, but there are simply not enough resources to solve every crime, she said.
"You can pass as many good laws as you want, but unless there is someone there to enforce them, they are meaningless," Ms. Wheeless said.
Mr. Bauer said another reason the bill was proposed was that federal law enforcement agencies have been spending more time on terrorism and less on financial crimes.
"We wanted to give local law enforcement and prosecutors more tools to fight this kind of crime," he said.