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Bank robbery -- that's still where the money is

American banks endured 8,259 robberies, burglaries and larcenies in 2001.

Nationwide, bank robberies increased by about 9 percent in 2001 compared with 2000. On average, about $4,400 is stolen per robbery.

It happens to banks large and small.

When Pilsen State Bank in Lincolnville, Kan., population 225, was robbed by two armed men in October 2001, bank president Kurt Spachek was eating lunch in a room away from the main banking area and didn't know what had happened until it was over.

When Spachek's bank was held up again in March 2002 by a single robber, who Spachek believed was one of the guys from the October robbery, the man ordered Spachek and four employees into a bathroom.

Spachek waited for the robber to leave and then jumped in his pickup truck and unsuccessfully chased the bad guy for eight miles through the farming and ranching community.

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"I was mad. I'd seen what it did to the employees the first time, and he had the nerve to come in the second time. I wanted it stopped before he did it to someone else."

Deterrent factors
The FBI, along with the banking and technology industries, is trying to make it more difficult for people to rob banks and make it easier to identify the ones who do.

"One area under review right now is transitioning to digital cameras instead of using film or video tape," says FBI agent Ken Neu. "The best quality is the most expensive. We want to determine what is a good standard before the banking industry buys a lot of equipment."

Costs aside, most banks don't want to appear as armed fortresses for fear of alienating and intimidating customers. But security experts say banks with upgraded security measures are less likely to be targeted by robbers.

"Electricity, water and crooks all seek the path of least resistance. Put a couple of speed bumps in front of them and they'll go hit someone who's not as prepared," according to security consultant Dana Turner of Security Education Systems in Pipe Creek, Texas.

Turner says banks should have teller counter barriers and security portals. Security portals are a double set of doors at bank entrances -- you can't go through the second door until the first one closes behind you. Turner says crooks stay away from banks that have them because they can get trapped between the two doors when they're trying to escape.

Barriers at the teller counter involve counter-to-ceiling bullet-resistant glass.

Neu says the FBI often recommends armed guards, but he admits it's not the answer in all cases and may even make a bad situation worse.

Jerome Olin, president of Commerce Bank & Trust in Worcester, Mass., says the question of whether to have armed guards is a tough one.

"We don't have guards. It's very expensive and we've elected not to do it. We've taken the route of making sure our employees know what to do -- that they cooperate. The money can be replaced. One hopes, the robber does as little damage as possible and leaves."

Olin speaks from experience; his branches have been robbed three times so far this year.

There are no regulations concerning the amount of training employees receive regarding procedures during a bank robbery, according to Irma Rabusa of the American Bankers Association.

While all banks schedule training on a regular basis, Rabusa says, training differs from one location to the next.

"Training at a bank in Iowa will be different from one in New York City."

Small-town robberies on the rise
Maybe it shouldn't. Bank robberies in small cities and towns increased by more than 35 percent from 1996 to 2001 and by almost 20 percent in rural areas.

"I'd agree there are more rural robberies," says Kurt Spachek. "My best guess is there may be a little less security, maybe less chance of cameras, less sophisticated cameras, maybe older, outdated equipment that doesn't work quite as well. Attitudes might be a little lax, much like the first time we got hit. It can't happen here."

But Spachek's employees knew what to do when it counted. They did what they were told, and no one was hurt.

Spachek, the robber-chasing bank president, would be the first to tell employees not to do what he did.

The FBI's Ken Neu says the same advice holds for customers who happen to be in the bank during a robbery.

"Customers have to be alert and aware of their surroundings and what's going on. Don't panic and don't do anything foolish. Do what needs to be done for your protection and safety."

To find out why most bank robberies happen on Fridays, and other bank robbery facts, click here.

-- Posted: June 7, 2002

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