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Could online hackers steal your cash?

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Highlights
  • Hacker attacks cost Americans millions of dollars each year.
  • Banking Trojans are invisible and can steal multiple types of data.
  • As a victim of online theft, you must act quickly and know your rights.

When you access your bank account online you probably don't think that at that exact moment there may be a hacker, somewhere in the world, trying to steal your bank information and your money.

Your bank offers secure online banking, so why should you worry, right?

Despite banks' efforts to protect accounts from the online crooks, hacker attacks remain a serious threat that cost Americans millions of dollars each year. The Internet Crime Complaint Center reported that Americans lost about $559 million to Internet thieves in 2009. That is more than twice the 2008 figure, when $268 million was stolen on the Internet, according to the center.

"Last year there were more online bank robberies than there were actual on-site bank robberies," says Sean Sullivan, a security adviser at F-Secure, an Internet security firm. "Banks have become very proactive in protecting accounts from hackers, but it's still quite a large problem. We see all types of new attempts every day."

Biggest threat

Banking Trojans -- malicious code specifically designed for banking fraud -- are one of the biggest threats to consumers who bank online, Sullivan says. They are invisible and can steal multiple types of data, including passwords. Some more advanced types of Trojans can make fraudulent transfers and drain your account while you are logged on to the account online, he says.

Is your bank safe?

The more questions and passwords you are asked to enter in order to log in to your account, the safer is your bank's website.

If your bank only asks you to enter a username and password to log in its website is not as secure as it should be, Sullivan says.

Some banks require customers to create a username, a site key name and use personalized pictures or symbols that appear during the login process. In addition, banks should ask customers to answer a security question before gaining access to their account.

"The more layers you have before you get to your account, the safer you are," Sullivan says.

Who's liable?

In the event you become a victim of online theft, act quickly and know your rights. The general rule for consumer checking and savings accounts is the bank is liable for most of the damage, as long as you report the illicit transfer in a timely manner. But if you have a line of credit account or a business account, you need to be extra careful, because the bank will not always be obligated to pay for your loss.

 

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Consumer accounts

Consumer checking and savings accounts are protected by the Electronic Funds Transfer Act, which limits consumer losses for online theft to $50, as long as the consumer reports the loss within 60 days after the fraudulent transfer appears on the statement.

The act does not apply to line of credit accounts, says David Johnson, an Internet law attorney at Epstein Becker and Green in San Francisco. Line of credit accounts are covered by "negligence law," Johnson says.

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