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A bigwig in the US Secret Service has warned that online fraud poses a real threat to a nation's economy.

Speaking at the RSA Security Conference in San Francisco Ralph Basham warned that hackers and criminals are teaming up to steal private financial information from companies and individuals.

"There is no longer any doubt about that threat. With just a few key strokes, [online fraudsters] can disrupt our nation's economy," Reuters quoted Basham as saying.

Earlier this week a US credit data company admitted that fraudsters accessed records on up to 35,000 people last October and may have stolen credit reports, Social Security numbers and other sensitive information.

Georgia-based ChoicePoint Inc. said thousands of Californians were hit by the fraud although it admitted that the "number of victims nation-wide could total 100,000".

Two weeks ago the US Federal Trade Commission said that Americans reported fraud losses of $548m during 2004. Of these 635,173 complaints, 246,570 concerned ID theft and 388,603 were about other forms of fraud. ®

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