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Phishers Drop Hooks Into Smaller Streams

In addition, customers of smaller banks may not be as experienced in dealing with such scams, said Rod Rasmussen, director of operations for Tacoma, Wash.-based Internet Identity, which helps banks and other online-fraud targets combat phishing Web sites.

Phishers hope they can "hit the mother lode with a small bank that's communicating with their customers in a way that makes them more susceptible ... than maybe they should be," Rasmussen said.

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Online criminals also are beginning to trade and sell lists of e-mail address lists of known bank customers. In a little-known online chat channel dedicated to credit card fraud and identity theft, one recent poster advertised for sale an e-mail address list of customers of Washington Mutual, a regional bank based in Seattle that serves customers in 14 states.

The company did not respond to repeated requests for comment. But experts say that if the e-mail lists are accurate, the people selling them probably culled most of the addresses from previous victims.

"In a lot of ways, phishing is nothing more than illegal direct marketing, so if you're a really clever criminal you will find ways to target your audience better," Rasmussen said.

Madelyn Valdes, 46, of the Bronx, N.Y., learned she'd been the victim of a phishing scam targeting Washington Mutual customers when her checking account was emptied of $900.

The scammers had used her checking information to open up a new Paypal account, and then wired the money to another location. Valdes said the thieves also tried to use her account information to buy hundreds of dollars worth of women's shoes online.

"I was about to send my rent check but now I can't do anything," she said. "I'm totally broke."

Banking on Technology

Some smaller banks have taken defensive steps to block phishers, such as declining to communicate with their customers via e-mail, or temporarily shutting down portions of their online banking sites once a scam has been identified.

Other regional banks, however, are warming to technologies adopted by many large financial institutions. Sovereign Bank, which maintains branches in seven northeastern states, was first targeted on Oct. 29, and then again one week later.

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