Call it ExamScam.
Mercantile Safe Deposit & Trust Co. customers are finding notices in their checking account statement this month warning them that telephone con men have found one of the most creative ways yet of reaching out and touching your wallet -- by claiming to be federal bank examiners.
The irony of con men pretending to be the very people who are supposed to keep banks honest is lost on few. These fine "public servants" just need a little help from you or your business -- in the form of your checking account number -- to conduct a very, very important investigation.
"They try to catch a person off guard," said Thomas A. Mariani, senior vice president of retail banking for Mercantile, a unit of Mercantile Bankshares Corp. "They pose as someone in a position of authority."
Mr. Mariani says that there's no need to be especially alarmed -- Mercantile has confirmed only one case where a con man tried to pull the "examiner" scam, and the customer saw through it and refused to cough up the information.
But The one case was enough to push Mercantile to send out 25,000 to 30,000 notices in recent account statements. "We just think the time has come to alert people," Mr. Mariani said.
A spokeswoman for the American Bankers Association said that the examiner scam, which has been tried on customers of other banks as well, is just the latest in a series of telemarketing frauds aimed at bank customers. She said that advances, such as laser
printers, let crooks print near-perfect forgeries of documents that authorize wire transfers from one account (yours) to another account (theirs). If, that is, the thieves have your account number.
"It's one in a string of many, many frauds," said Sonia Barbera, the ABA spokeswoman. "It's called a demand-draft scam. It's getting to be a very big thing."
Demand drafts are the forms people give their banks so that money is transferred by wire out of their accounts, usually to pay bills automatically each month. Many people make their mortgage, car or student loan payments with demand drafts.
Ms. Barbera said that demand-draft fraud is just the next generation of scams beyond those in which con artists try to pry people's credit-card numbers out of them. "People got smart about giving out their credit card numbers," she said.
Officials at Baltimore Bancorp and MNC Financial Inc. said they don't know of any of their customers who have been victimized by "ExamScam." But Baltimore Bancorp Executive Vice President Jerome P. Baroch said the company's Bank of Baltimore subsidiary periodically publishes articles warning about frauds in its customer newsletter.