THE MAGAZINE

Crime Fighters Collaborate

By Robert Elliott

Growing Problem
U.S. Census Bureau figures show Weld County is the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the nation. It houses at least seven of the 10 fastest-growing communities in Colorado, and its population has nearly trebled to more than 200,000 people since 1990.

With the growth has come more sophisticated businesses—but also smarter thieves. “We’ve seen large white-collar rings funded by the underground drug trafficking world, where they move into areas…and set up elaborate plans where they hit 20 or 30 banks in a few days and walk away with $50,000 to $100,000,” says Byron Bateman, chief executive officer, president, and chair of Cache Bank and Trust, and a cochair on the special task force.

Jenifer Saltzman, senior vice president of the Colorado Bankers Association, says that the state of Colorado loses $75 million every year from fraud, or $1,000 per every $1 million in assets. The bulk of the loss is from check fraud, which nationwide reached $677 million in 2003, according to the American Bankers Association (ABA). The banks, not the customers, shoulder the burden. The ABA noted that attempted check fraud during the same year was $5.5 billion. The association credits banking-system safeguards with thwarting the majority of attempts.

Benefits. The Weld County task force, supervised by the chief investigator in the local district attorney’s office, has already identified six cases that it will tackle. Investigators will stay on cases “until they reach conclusions,” says Buck.

Local bank executives recognize that they are all in the fight together and can all benefit when the task force helps police to stop any white-collar criminal. For example, Bank of Choice, one of the larger community banks, was hit recently for more than $100,000 in check fraud and other related financial crimes by an individual who was also victimizing other area banks. “It brings to light the reality that everybody is susceptible to having things like this happen,” says Patty Gates, the bank’s executive vice president.

Banks hope that in addition to helping to catch some fraudsters who have committed crimes in their area, the task force will also serve as a deterrent to underhanded activity. “We want our area to be less desirable [to crooks]. We want people to steer clear,” says Bateman.

Funding. Banks are funding the Weld County task force with donations relative to their size. A small bank or one new to the area is asked to contribute about $500, while larger, more established entities are encouraged to donate as much as $5,000. One bank that had been stung by a slew of white-collar capers ponied up $10,000.

Contributions are confidential. “The D.A.’s office will never know how much anyone gives, for obvious political reasons. Everyone will be treated equally, no matter the size,” says Bateman. Industry officials note that the amounts are a drop in the bucket for most financial institutions. “$10,000 is not that big of a deal. For $5,000 or $10,000, if [the task force] can accomplish anything, it’s worth it,” says John Shriner, senior vice president and director of physical security at Wells Fargo.

Activities. In addition to funding its own investigations, the Weld County task force plans on putting some of its collected contributions into other tools for foiling white-collar crime, such as Fraud-NET.com, founded in 2004 by the Utah Bankers Association.

The program uses the Internet to create a fraud-alert database where financial institutions can both post and field alerts regarding criminal activity. Coverage patterns can canvass regions of a particular state, states as a whole, or even the entire nation.

Though it is relatively new, Fraud-NET has already become known among bankers. “We’re a big user of Fraud-NET,” said Shriner. “Any way, shape, or form we can share information or pictures that lead to apprehension, or shutting these [white-collar] things down, is good for everybody,” he says.

Buoyed by Fraud-NET and the eventual results of on-the-ground investigations, Weld County officials expect their task force to gather momentum. Cochair Byron Bateman says the group is hoping to expand beyond commercial ban

To give the Weld County contributors an idea of what they are paying for, the area task force holds quarterly progress updates. The first such progress-reporting session took place on September 30.

Money should not be an issue as the program gets rolling and starts snaring criminals in its net, Bateman says. “If we are reporting on a quarterly basis on the successes of the program, and if this goes the way I think it will, I think we’ll have twice the $40,000 for the bulk of the five years we’re looking to do this,” he says. As an officer in the state banking organization, Bateman’s goal is to put together a similar program for banks across Colorado once the successes pile up.

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