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Banks do battle with debit-card fraud

Bank of America and Washington Mutual institute programs to alert customers whenever changes are made to their accounts.

Vaults won't repel a new breed of bank robber, which apparently has learned to drain debit-card accounts via electronic thievery. To secure their customers' cash, banks are searching for new high-tech watchdogs.

As part of a broader security initiative, Bank of America is offering to alert customers of any suspicious charges or changes to their account via e-mail or text messages almost as soon as they occur.

"We're giving customers more ways to detect fraud and keep an eye on their accounts," Sanjay Gupta, the bank's e-commerce executive, said in a statement. "They can decide what they want to hear about and where they want to be told."

Washington Mutual has also begun offering similar alerts. Both banks were among the scores of financial institutions forced to reissue thousands of debit cards in the past two months after hackers broke into the computer systems of a national retailer and made off with customer data--including PINs.

The robbers stole personal information belonging to as many as 600,000 debit-card holders, according to reports. Victims from numerous U.S. cities filed complaints with police about unauthorized charges being made overseas.

The new alert system could help customers spot fraud early, which is key to preventing big losses.

Bank of America will notify customers about changes to their passwords or when a purchase tops a customer-selected dollar amount. Account holders can receive a daily update of their balance and choose whether the alert goes to their BlackBerry, Treo 650 or office computer.

Similarly, Washington Mutual e-mails customers when changes are made to a customer's home or e-mail address, which could alert an account holder that someone is trying to hijack his or her identity.

A withdrawal that exceeds a certain amount or a balance that falls below a predetermined dollar figure will also trigger Washington Mutual's alert system, said Gary Kishner, the bank's spokesman.