By Tom Murphy

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Bank of America ( BAC) has joined several other financial institutions in refusing to handle payments for WikiLeaks, the latest blow to the secret-releasing organization's efforts to continue operating under pressure from governments and the corporate world.

The Charlotte-based bank's move adds to similar actions by Mastercard ( MA) and PayPal Inc. Though previous moves have prompted reprisals by hackers, Bank of America's site is as well-protected as they come, security experts say.

Its site was problem-free through midafternoon Saturday.

"This decision is based upon our reasonable belief that WikiLeaks may be engaged in activities that are, among other things, inconsistent with our internal policies for processing payments," the bank said in a statement Saturday. The move was first reported by The Charlotte Observer.

Earlier this month, Internet "hacktivists" operating under the label "Operation Payback" claimed responsibility in a Twitter message for causing technical problems at the MasterCard Web site after it ended its relationship with WikiLeaks. PayPal saw its Web site subject to an attack that slowed it down but did not significantly affect payments.

Bank of America's Web site offers access to customer accounts through its home page, but it could be a tough nut for hackers to crack, security experts say.

No financial institution can "fully keep the bad guys out," said Rich Mogull, an analyst and CEO with the security research firm Securosis. But he added that customers shouldn't worry about WikiLeaks supporters plundering their accounts, because the bank has plenty of practice in warding off hackers. Also, previous attacks in support of WikiLeaks haven't targeted customer accounts.

"Bank of America, I can guarantee you, is one of the top targets in the world," Mogull said.

He also said the company probably confronts denial-of-service attacks regularly, too, and likely has strong defenses. "I'm not going to guarantee it's enough," he said. "It always depends on how big the attack is."

In such attacks, computers are harnessed -- sometimes surreptitiously -- to jam target sites with mountains of requests for data, knocking them out of commission.

Reached by phone, Bank of America spokesman Scott Silvestri declined further comment to The Associated Press on Saturday.

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