Low-Tech Threat: Bank Robberies Are Soaring. Banks Look for Ways to Fight a Centuries-Old Risk. Here Is a Collection of Useful Ideas. (Cover Story)

Article excerpt

Even in this day of ever-widening competition, when it comes to "portable" cash, the financial services player of choice for modern robbers is the traditional depository institution.

In recent months, this preference has grown significantly, as the chart shows at right. In 2001, according to preliminary FBI reports, there were 8,322 bank robberies--a 17% increase over the previous year. If this wasn't enough to make those "stupid bank robber" stories that newspapers publish now and then cease to be very funny, any remaining laughs stopped on Sept. 26, when three robbers armed with handguns shot to death five people--four employees and one customer--and wounded another customer in a Norfolk, Neb., bank robbery in what has been characterized as the deadliest case in more than a decade. Not helping matters was the widespread perception that the war on terrorism was going to take the FBI, traditionally the lead on many bank robbery cases, off the beat. Recent talks between FBI and banking industry representatives have clarified this, according to John Byrne, senior counsel at ABA. While the bureau is stretched thinner, it still intends to be in the mix on violent robberies. Byrne says where violence is not involved, the bureau has requested that banks work more closely with state and local authorities. Even so, the bureau will not be completely out of some nonviolent bank robberies.

Of course, even better is to stop the bad guys before they start. Which is where our cover report comes in.

What we present here is intended to inform readers of the ideas that are out there. Not every potential solution is favored by everyone. For example, while the FBI favors use of barriers that "harden the target," some bankers resist the use of "mantraps," bullet barriers, or even armed guards. Yet, all are open to ideas that could help ease this growing problem.

We would welcome readers' views and ideas on the subject. (See masthead on page 4 for address information.) Given the nature of the material, we will honor any requests for confidentiality.

How to stop robbers--and what to do when prevention fails

Prevention: the best strategy

The best way to deal with a bank robbery or burglary is to try to prevent its ever happening, or to make it as unattractive as possible. Here are some steps to take in that regard:

1. Make regular tests of any and all alarm devices maintained in the financial institutions to ensure that they are in the best possible operating condition. Do not underestimate the value of an alarm system. A burglar dislikes nothing more than noise. Do not neglect the security of your night depository. Thieves will be wary if your warnings are known to be backed up by working systems.

2. Be aware. A financial institution is very seldom prey for a criminal until and unless it has been thoroughly "cased." Tell all of your employees to carefully observe persons loitering in the building. You should be discreetly wary of suspicious-looking individuals who seek change or ask for information.

How to stop robbers--and what to do when prevention fails

This is a common ruse.

3. Note identification. Check on maintenance workers, and be certain that they are what they represent themselves to be.

4. Keep the amount of cash in the tellers' drawers at the very minimum. Robbers seldom have time to steal more than the money accessible in the cash drawers. In addition, it is a good habit to have at least one bundle of bait money in every teller's drawer sequenced by serial numbers. Record those numbers by series year and denominations.

5. Employees should remove all currency and securities from counters and desks whenever they leave their posts. Thieves have a favorite trick. They'll phone tellers by name and ask them to conduct a search for a package they claim they left at the bank. …