Keeping Your Bank & Credit Card Accounts Safe from Fraud

A manual for community-based organizations

A manual designed to help staff members of community-based organizations educate their clients about avoiding fraud in banking and credit card transactions. Topics covered include banking on the Internet, avoiding financial scams, identity theft and using ATMs. Includes resources for victims of fraud.

Keeping Your Bank & Credit Card Accounts Safe from Fraud

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Table of Contents

Introduction

Bank and credit card fraud costs companies billions of dollars per year, and the added expense gets passed along to consumers through higher fees and interest rates. Fraud also affects consumers by damaging their credit ratings. Although it's unfair, many victims of fraud find that regaining a good reputation and unraveling financial damage caused by fraud is a nightmare.

By being alert to possible fraud, you may avoid becoming a victim. It may not be possible to avoid every type of fraud - scam artists are sophisticated and always seem to be one step ahead in devising new ways to rip people off. But if you are aware, you may avoid the suffering and hassle of becoming a fraud victim.

Consumer Action wrote this manual with funding from The San Francisco Foundation's Bank of America Consumer Education Fund. It is intended to help staff members of community-based organizations educate and inform their clients. In addition, Consumer Action and BACEF have developed several multilingual free publications on various aspects of fraud for your agency to distribute to clients. These are available in bulk at no charge to community-based organizations:

  • Credit Repair Scams: They Make Your Money Disappear
  • Don't Lose Your Home! How to Avoid Home Equity Loan Fraud
  • Preventing Credit Card Fraud
  • Protect Yourself From Identity Theft

Consumer Action is a non-profit education and advocacy organization. For information on how to order free bulk copies, send a request by mail to our San Francisco address, by fax to (415) 777-5267, or by e-mail to [email protected].

Banking on the Internet

I would like to use an online (Internet) bank, but I don't know how to find out which ones are safe to use.

Before doing business with an Internet bank, be sure that the bank has a legitimate banking charter and is federally insured through the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). To conduct business in the U.S., Internet banks must have permission to operate from a federal or state agency and must be insured by the FDIC. The FDIC provides insurance of up to $100,000 on checking and savings accounts, trusts, certificates of deposit and money-market accounts. If the bank goes out of business, each account is protected up to that amount.

To check on the legitimacy of any bank, online or traditional brick-and-mortar, go to the FDIC web site (www2.fdic.gov/idasp) and search its database of insured and licensed banking organizations. Don't do business with any bank that you can't find in the database.

The banking industry has introduced an online seal of approval called "SiteCertain" administered through the American Bankers Association. You can click on the SiteCertain logo and connect to a secure database that verifies the legitimacy of the site.

Some of the rates offered by Internet banks seem too good to be true.

Internet banks can give customers somewhat better rates by not having the overhead of brick-and-mortar branches. But a huge difference in rates probably spells trouble and bears checking out.

The names of unauthorized banks identified by the FDIC can be found by reading the "financial institution letters" (FILs) available on the agency's web site under the "News, Events & Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)" category (www.fdic.gov/news/news/financial/2000/index.html). FILs are published to alert the banking industry and consumers about unauthorized banking operations in the U.S. and Canada.

I saw an ad on the Internet for an overseas bank offering very high interest rates on savings accounts and very low rates on credit cards.

The Internet has no borders, so you may find banks that operate outside U.S. jurisdiction. These banks might have tempting offers, but you will have little recourse if you are defrauded. While these banks may be operating legally according to the laws of their own country, those regulations may be significantly less stringent than U.S. rules, and they may leave you to sort out any problems by yourself without the help of U.S. agencies or bank regulators.

Someone made an electronic debit to my account that I did not authorize. It originated through an Internet bank that allowed its customers to transfer money from other accounts at will.

Electronic Internet commerce has created new opportunities for fraud. Technically, direct transfers of funds from a bank account should be authorized in writing, however, companies such as credit card issuers and brokerage firms set up transfers with only oral consent. Ask your bank not to make any electronic transfers from your account unless it has an authorization form signed by you.

Financial scams

I received an official-looking letter from a Nigerian official who asked me to temporarily keep a large amount of money in my U.S. bank account. In return, he offered to pay me 10 percent plus expenses.

This is a long-lived fraud scheme that has bilked people all over the world out of hundreds of millions of dollars. The so-called "Nigerian bank scam" is just a way to get your bank account number so that the crooks can steal your money. In some cases, they just ask you for money for "wire transfer fees" and other bogus charges, money you will never see again. This fraud has persisted for years and claims many new victims each year, despite efforts to publicize its dangers. It now shows up on the Internet and in e-mails.

A nice lady called me on the phone and said I had won a trip for two to Hawaii. She asked for my credit card number and expiration date so she could charge me for overnight delivery and send me the tickets right away. I don't remember entering any contest.

The "nice lady" who called you is a crooked telemarketer trying to con you out of your credit card number. If you give out this information, the crooks can charge your card up to its limit with fraudulent purchases or cash advances. Telemarketers also use the same ruse to trick you into giving out your bank account number and authorizing a withdrawal.

I was shopping for a loan and saw an ad that guaranteed to get me the amount I needed at an attractive interest rate, in return for an up-front fee.

Advance fee loan deals attract customers with the promise of personal or business loans, but most are empty promises. While legitimate lenders sometimes require you to pay an application fee to cover the costs of checking your credit and researching your financial background, the fees charged by advance fee loan companies are just a way to steal your money.

Using ATMs

I was using an automated teller machine (ATM) the other day and a woman was close behind me and seemed to be watching my transaction very closely.

She may have been trying to see your personal identification number (PIN) so she could steal your ATM card and use your card to make a withdrawal. Always be alert while using an ATM and shield the keypad with your hand when entering your PIN. Never give your PIN to anyone, even family or friends.

Memorize your PIN and don't keep a record of it with your card. If you suspect that someone might have discovered your number, you can change it at any time by contacting the bank. Don't use easily identifiable codes like birth dates, your name or your spouse's name.

I was at the ATM and a stranger asked for my help. I used my card to demonstrate to her how to use the machine. Later, I noticed she had switched cards with me and I found fraudulent withdrawals on my account.

Crooks use this method to confuse people and to switch cards. Sometimes dishonest people pretend to bump into you as you leave the machine, hoping to make you drop your card so they can make a switch. Be on your guard if you are crowded or jostled, or if there is a disturbance around you. Your card could be switched before you realized it. Never ask a stranger for help—if you have any difficulty operating the ATM ask a bank staff person for assistance. Check your card and put it away safely before turning away from the ATM.

Check fraud

I left a stack of bills I had paid for the postal carrier to pick up from the lobby of my building. Someone took the letters before they were picked up, altered my checks and made off with the money.

Check fraud can happen in many ways. You were victimized by someone who stole your outgoing mail. Next time you are mailing checks, take them to a mail box or post office instead of leaving them in your lobby. You can take precautions to protect yourself from having alterations made to your checks. Write out the full name of the company the check is made out to, so that there is no room to add any other name. The Internal Revenue Service found that crooks were stealing people's income tax payments and altering IRS to read MRS. "So-and-so" in order to cash the checks. The agency advises you to write its full name on any checks. When filling in the amount in numbers and on the line spelling out the amount, make sure you begin writing to the immediate left, so that no numbers can be added in front. For example, a check for $100 could be easily altered to read $1,100 by adding a 1 and a comma before the 100.

Someone took some of those checks that credit card companies send and used them to take cash advances of $3,000 on my account.

This type of check is sent unsolicited to credit cardholders. If they fall into the wrong hands, they can be used for fraud. Unless you really need one of the checks, ask your card issuer not to send them anymore. If you receive such checks, tear them up thoroughly before throwing them away.

I went into a bank to open an account. The bank officer told me that my application had not been approved, because a check screening company had provided negative information about me.

Banks use screening companies to identify people opening an account who have a poor record with other banks. If you are turned down when you apply for a bank account, you have the right to obtain the name, address and phone number of the company that provided the information used to make the decision. (The largest national company is ChexSystems, (800) 428-9623.) Contact the check screening company and ask for the information used by the bank to deny you an account. If you think there is a mistake in your record, you have the right to dispute the information. The company will tell you how to file a dispute.

If you believe that the information can be attributed to check fraud, speak with someone in the check screening company's fraud department and ask how you can file an affidavit of fraud.

I was the victim of check fraud and I reported it to my bank. I thought everything was straightened out, but the other day my check was rejected by a local chain store.

If you have had your checks stolen, you should close the account and obtain new account numbers. If a fraudulent bank account was set up in your name, notify the following check verification companies:

  • CheckRite: (800) 766-2748
  • CrossCheck: (800) 552-1900
  • Equifax: (800) 437-5120
  • National Processing Co. (NPC): (800) 526-5380
  • SCAN: (800) 262-7771
  • TeleCheck: (800) 710-9898

Credit card fraud

I got a renewal for my credit card in the mail, with an "800" number to call to activate it before I used it the first time. I called from my office and was told that I had to call from my home phone.

Credit card crooks steal cards from mail boxes or mail centers, before you even receive them. As a protection, most card issuers now require that you call from the phone number you put on your application to activate the card. It is required that you call from home because a thief usually would not have access to your home phone or other identifying information that you would be asked to provide during the activation process, such as your Social Security number or mother's maiden name. In this way, the company can be reasonably assured that you are activating the card, not an impersonator.

Several months ago, my adult son asked if I would give him a credit card on my account since he has no credit history. He used the card to charge lots of expensive items, but has not paid his bills.

When you add the names of other people, such as your children, to your credit card account as "authorized users," you are responsible for all the charges they make. Unless you can convince your son to pay for his charges, you will have to pay them or your account will be in default and your credit rating will suffer. (Your son's credit will also be adversely affected, as the debts of an authorized user are reported under his own name, as well as yours.) If you close the account immediately, he cannot charge anything else on the card.

My daughter took a preapproved credit card offer that had been sent to me, changed the address and got a credit card in my name. She has run up considerable debt and the card company is demanding that I pay the full balance.

Your are in a very difficult position. The first step is to close the account immediately by calling the card issuer. You are the victim of fraud, but it may be difficult to convince a credit card issuer that you were defrauded by a family member. Reporting the incident as a fraud might mean that your daughter will be arrested and possibly have to serve a jail sentence. However, by reporting this as fraud, you may be able to protect your good credit standing. If you decide to report the fraud, call the credit card company's fraud investigation department. Alternatively, you might want to try to work this out with your daughter privately.

I used my first name as a personal identification number for my ATM card. When my wallet was stolen recently, the thief figured out my PIN and withdrew a lot of money.

Your personal identification number (PIN) is a secret code you provide when using your credit card to withdraw cash from an automated teller machine (ATM). By using an obvious password, you allowed a thief to gain access to your account. Don't write down your PIN on the back of the card or keep it in your wallet; keep a copy of the number in a safe place at home. Don't use the same PIN for all your cards, and don't choose your name or birth date, spouse's name or any other easily identifiable word or number that might be in your wallet. Despite your misstep, your liability for unauthorized withdrawals is limited by law. (See the section on the "Electronic Fund Transfer Act")

I found an unauthorized transaction on my credit card statement. The card company told me that someone at a restaurant I frequent had used a "reader" to steal my credit card number and create a counterfeit card.

This is called "skimming," and it is one of the fastest growing areas of credit card fraud. Skimmers—usually employees of a legitimate business—steal account information by swiping credit cards through a magnetic card reader. The data is copied onto blank cards and the counterfeit cards are used for unauthorized transactions. Across the country, waiters and store clerks have been caught with readers. While victims can get unauthorized transactions removed from their bills by calling their card issuers, the fraud is costing credit card companies millions of dollars per month. Reviewing your credit card and bank statements thoroughly can help you avoid fraudulent charges. However, your liability for unauthorized withdrawals is limited by law. (See the section on the "Electronic Fund Transfer Act")

I tried to order something from a catalog company over the phone, but they would not accept my charge because the address I gave did not exactly match the billing address on my credit card.

When you order merchandise by phone or on the Internet, anti-fraud address verification programs compare the mailing address to the billing address on your credit card. If they are different, you may be asked for additional identification. Before ordering anything again, pull out a copy of your credit card billing statement and make sure the address you give the company agrees exactly—a small difference such as the lack of an apartment number might delay your purchase.

I responded to an offer for a credit card that was advertised on a flier. As requested, I sent a $25 check to the company's post office box, but never received a credit card even though my check was cashed.

This company probably never intended to give you a credit cardit was just trying to get your money. Mail fraud cases involving credit cards are very common because there are so many people with poor or damaged credit history who can't get a credit card. Before you send money to any company, check it out first by calling your local Better Business Bureau (BBB) or state or county consumer affairs department. (Look for the numbers in your local phone book.) If you have some money to put down as a deposit—as little as $250—you may be able to get a secured credit card. To find banks that offer secured credit cards for people with no credit or damaged credit, visit the BankRate web site (www.bankrate.com).

When I received my last credit card statement, I noticed charges on it for Internet service. I don't even have a computer.

Credit card "cramming"—unauthorized charges for items or services that you didn't order—can happen when unscrupulous businesses get their hands on credit card numbers by buying the information from marketing firms or from other businesses. The crooks make money when consumers don't dispute the charges, so reviewing your bill carefully is your best defense. If your credit card company fails to help you remove the unauthorized charges, contact the issuer's bank regulator and the Federal Trade Commission, which has brought charges against companies for credit card cramming. (See Resources)

Identity theft

Someone used my name and Social Security number to open credit card accounts. All the accounts are overdue and I didn't even know what happened to me until I applied for a new credit card and was denied. I found out I am a victim of "identity theft."

Identity theft is a widespread crime in which crooks use your personal information, such as name, address and Social Security number to set up credit accounts in your name. The crime affects hundreds of thousands of people each year. In 1999, one of the three largest credit reporting agencies (Trans Union) told US Today newspaper that it was receiving about 1,400 calls per day from identity fraud victims.

Your personal information can be used to open credit accounts (credit cards, car loans, home mortgages) or bank accounts in your name.

I ordered my credit report and discovered that someone has used my identity to set up credit accounts. I'm not sure what to do next.

  • Report your case to law enforcement. Start by reporting the theft of your identity to the local police or sheriff's office. You may need a police report to show creditors and the credit reporting bureaus that you are a crime victim. Identity theft is a federal felony offense and a crime in 22 states.
  • Call all three credit bureaus. If you become a victim of identity theft, immediately call the fraud units of the three largest credit bureaus to report the fraud: Equifax (800-525-6285), Experian (888-397-3742), and Trans-Union (800-680-7289). Ask to have a fraud alert placed on your credit report.
  • Check your credit report frequently. Victims of identity theft should order a copy of their credit reports every few months. (The credit bureaus must provide victims of identity fraud with one free report per year.)
  • Report your case to federal authorities. The Federal Trade Commission has a special identity theft hotline to provide information to consumers and take complaints from victims by phone (877-438-4338) or online (www.consumer.gov/idtheft).
  • Notify financial institutions that you are a victim of fraud. Your credit report will list the addresses and phone numbers of banks and other creditors who allowed the fraudulent accounts to be set up. Write a letter to each one noting that you are a fraud victim and you want the account closed and labeled that it was closed "at the consumer's request."

My friend was the victim of identity theft. She has been trying for four years to straighten out her credit history. I want to do everything I can to avoid this happening to me.

According to the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse (www.privacyrights.org), these steps may help you avoid becoming a victim of identity theft:

  • Don't carry your Social Security card, birth certificate, passport or extra credit cards unless you need them. Your purse or wallet could be stolen and the information could be used to set up credit in your name.
  • Remove your name from credit card prescreening programs at the three major credit reporting bureaus by calling (888) 5-OPTOUT (567-8688). One call will notify the three major credit bureaus.
  • Keep your mail box locked and keep track of when you expect credit card and bank statements, new cards or checks to arrive. Call the issuer immediately if they don't get there on time. You can pick up new checks at the bank instead of having them sent to your home.
  • When you pay bills, put the payments in a official mail box or at the post office so someone cannot steal your checks and alter them.
  • Order your credit report once a year from the three largest credit reporting agencies. Make sure it is accurate and includes only accounts you authorized. You may be charged $8.50 for a copy of your credit report. However, if you are a victim of identity theft, the credit bureaus must give you a free copy of your report. (See Resources)
  • Dispose of credit card receipts, statements and preapproved offers by tearing them into tiny pieces.
  • Don't let merchants write down your card number as confirmation on checks you write for them. It is illegal in many states for merchants to require credit cards as identification when you pay by check.
  • Always check your monthly statements against the receipts, and look for any charges you didn't make. This is the best way of making sure no one has used your credit card number.
  • Never write your card number on a postcard or on the outside of an envelope.

Federal consumer protection laws

  • The Fair Credit Billing Act provides procedures to help consumers dispute billing errors and fraudulent charges on credit card accounts. The law limits cardholder liability for unauthorized credit card charges in most cases to $50 per card.
    To dispute a fraudulent charge or an error on your bill write to the creditor at the address given for billing inquiries. Include your name, address, account number and a description of the billing error or fraudulent charge, including the amount and date of the error.
    Your letter must reach the creditor within 60 days after the first credit card bill containing the error was mailed to you. This is true even if you are a victim of identity theft and never received your bill—an important reason to keep track of your billing statements and follow up immediately if one doesn't arrive on time.
    Send your letter by certified mail, and request a return receipt so you will have proof. Keep a copy of your letter. The creditor must acknowledge your complaint in writing within 30 days and must notify you of the resolution of the dispute within two billing cycles.
  • The Electronic Fund Transfer Act covers transactions involving ATM cards, debit cards or other electronic debits or credits. It also limits your liability for unauthorized electronic fund transfers. Report lost or stolen ATM and debit cards immediately because the amount you can be held responsible for depends on how quickly you report the loss.

Under the Electronic Fund Transfer Act:

  • If you report your ATM card lost or stolen within two business days of discovering the loss or theft, your losses are limited to $50.
  • If you report your ATM card lost or stolen after the two business days, but within 60 days after a statement showing an unauthorized electronic fund transfer, you can be liable for up to $500 of what a thief withdraws.
  • If you wait more than 60 days, you could lose all the money that was taken from your account after the end of the 60 days and before you report your card missing.
    (Debit cards branded by Visa or MasterCard and some banks offer more liability protection than federal lawthe companies have voluntarily agreed to limit consumer liability for unauthorized debit card use to $50 per card, no matter how much time has passed.)

Resources for assistance and information

Banking agencies

Report all unauthorized or fraudulent use of your bank account or credit or debit card directly to the financial institution. If you have a problem resolving a complaint with your bank or credit card issuer, contact the appropriate banking regulator. To find your bank's regulator, call your bank or search online at the National Information Center of the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council (www.ffiec.gov/nic/default.htm).

  • The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (www.fdic.gov) supervises state-chartered banks that are not members of the Federal Reserve System and insures deposits at banks and savings and loans. Call the FDIC at (800) 934-3342 or write to its Division of Compliance and Consumer Affairs, 550 17th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20429.
  • The Federal Reserve System (www.federalreserve.gov) supervises state-chartered banks that are members of the Federal Reserve System. Call (202) 452-3693 or write to its Division of Consumer and Community Affairs, Mail Stop 801, Federal Reserve Board, Washington, DC 20551.
  • The National Credit Union Administration (www.ncua.gov) charters and supervises federal credit unions and insures deposits at federal credit unions and many state credit unions. Call (703) 518-6360 or write to its Compliance Officer, National Credit Union Administration, 1775 Duke Street, Alexandria, VA 22314.
  • The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (www.occ.treas.gov) charters and supervises national banks. If the word "national" appears in the name of a bank, or the letters "NA" follow its name, the OCC oversees its operations. Call (800) 613-6743 (9 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays Central Time) or write to its Customer Assistance Group, 1301 McKinney Street, Suite 3710, Houston, TX 77010. E-mail your message to [email protected].
  • The Office of Thrift Supervision (www.ots.treas.gov) is the primary regulator of all federal and many state-chartered thrift institutions, which include savings banks and savings and loans. Call (202) 906-6000 or write to OTS, 1700 G Street, NW, Washington, DC 20552.

Credit reporting agencies

Federal law enforcement agencies

You can file a fraud complaint with the Federal Trade Commission's Consumer Response Center at (877) FTC-HELP (382-4357). The FTC does not resolve individual consumer problems, but can bring charges against a company for violations of federal consumer protection laws. Victims of identity theft can call the FTC's Identity Theft Hotline at (877) ID-THEFT (438-4338).

In addition, the following federal agencies may be of help to fraud victims. Most offer consumer education materials on fraud prevention:

  • The Federal Bureau of Investigation (www.fbi.gov) investigates financial fraud and identity theft cases. Look for your local FBI local field offices in the government pages of your telephone directory.
  • The Department of Justice (www.usdoj.gov) and its U.S. attorneys prosecute federal identity theft cases.
  • The U.S. Secret Service (www.treas.gov/usss) is one of the federal law enforcement agencies that investigates mainly large scale financial crimes, including identity theft. But even if your losses to fraud are not substantial, your complaint may tip off the Secret Service to a larger pattern of fraud. Local field offices are listed in the government pages of your telephone directory or on the web site. The web site also offers many consumer education publications on forgery, counterfeit money, Nigerian bank scams and other financial frauds, as well as tips on how to avoid becoming a victim of many kinds of crimes.
  • The Social Security Administration (www.ssa.gov) may assign new Social Security numbers to some victims of identity fraud. Its Office of the Inspector General investigates fraud cases involving theft or misuse of Social Security numbers. Call (800) 269-0271 or write to the SSA Fraud Hotline, P.O. Box 17768, Baltimore, MD 21235. You may e-mail your complaint to [email protected]
  • The U.S. Postal Inspection Service (www.usps.gov/websites/depart/inspect) is the law enforcement arm of the U.S. Postal Service and has jurisdiction over fraud involving the U.S. mail. To report suspected fraud, call the Postal Crime Hotline at (800) 654-8896.

State and local government agencies

  • Report fraud to your state Attorney General (AG) and/or your state or local consumer protection agency. A list of state AG offices can be found on the National Association of Attorneys General web site (www.naag.org), or check the government section of your local phone directory.
  • The free annual "Consumer Action Handbook" contains many useful federal, state and local contacts for resolving consumer conflicts or complaints. You can call 888-878-3256 to order a copy or write to: Handbook, Pueblo CO 81009. The entire publication and an order form are available online as well (www.pueblo.gsa.gov).

Removing your name from marketing lists

  • All three of the largest credit bureaus allow you to opt out of credit card issuers' prescreening programs by calling (888) 567-8688. Experian is the only credit reporting agency that offers consumers the opportunity to have their names removed from lists it sells to other companies for marketing and promotional purposes. To have your name removed, call 800-407-1088.
  • Some state departments of motor vehicles (DMVs) distribute personal information for law enforcement, driver safety, insurance underwriting and marketing purposes. Contact your state DMV for more information on its marketing list policyyou may have the right to opt out of marketing programs.
  • The Direct Marketing Association's (DMA) preference services allow consumers to opt out of e-mail marketing, direct mail marketing and/or telemarketing solicitations from DMA member companies.
    To remove your e-mail address from DMA member e-mail marketing lists, go to www.e-mps.org on the Internet.
    To remove your name from DMA member direct mail marketing lists, send your name and address to:
    DMA Mail Preference Service
    P.O. Box 9008
    Farmingdale, NY 11735-9008
    To avoid unwanted phone calls from DMA member telemarketers, send your name, address, and telephone number to:
    DMA Telephone Preference Service
    P.O. Box 9014
    Farmingdale, NY 11735-9014

Consumer organizations

  • Consumer Action is a non-profit education and advocacy organization. Its free consumer advice and referral hotline helps consumers find information about their consumer rights and guides them to appropriate complaint-handling agencies. Call: (415) 777-9635 or (213) 624-8327; TTY: (415) 777-9456. E-mail: [email protected].
  • National Fraud Information Center (NFIC). Consumers can get advice about telephone solicitations and report possible telemarketing fraud to law enforcement agencies by calling the NFIC's free hotline at (800) 876-7060 or by filling out an online complaint form on NFIC's web site (www.fraud.org). English and Spanish spoken.
  • Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. Advice and information for victims of ID theft can be found on the group's web site (www.privacyrights.org).
  • U.S. PIRG (Public Interest Research Group). Provides a wealth of on-line information (http://www.pirg.org) on the rights of identity fraud victims, consumer credit and privacy rights. On the home page, click on "Consumers."

Published / Reviewed Date

Published: December 27, 2001

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