Bank heists not a good idea

Robberies especially dumb in an area crossed by very few roads

Posted: Monday, November 15, 2004

ANCHORAGE - Robbing a bank is not a smart crime to commit in general, but robbing one in this state is downright dumb, said Tom McClenaghan, special agent in charge of the FBI in Alaska.

"It's stupid to rob a bank anywhere because the solution rate is so high," he said. "But in Alaska, it's extremely stupid. The nice thing about Alaska is we are so isolated and the road system is so small. With bank robberies in Anchorage, the robber is most likely to be from here, and he's got nowhere to go."

Robbers in the Lower 48 have a huge network of interstates and highways to use in their escapes. In Alaska, there are only a couple of directions out of the major towns on the road system, and in the Bush, robbers better have a charter plane ready.

Still, this year a dozen people had tried to rob banks in Alaska, mostly in Anchorage, as of Oct. 27. Eleven have been caught.

The FBI investigates crimes that have been committed against federally insured institutions, including banks and credit unions. Robbing a bank is a federal crime subject to up to 20 years in federal prison.

Over the past 10 years, the FBI has investigated 125 bank robberies in Alaska. The worst year was 1999, with 23. The number dropped to three in 2000 but has increased annually since then.

Nationally, the early 1990s saw increases in bank robberies - the worst year was in 1992, with 9,540 - but then fell to less than 7,000 in 1995. The numbers leveled out at around 8,000 a year from 1996 to 1998. In 1999, they again dropped to below 7,000, but steadily increased from there. In 2003, there were 7,465 robberies of financial institutions and armored carrier companies.

The robbers generally only grab a few thousand dollars, but robberies are expensive for the institutions involved.

Immediately after a robbery, banks are required to close their doors while the FBI and other law enforcement agencies investigate. Tellers and other employees often take several days off work, if they return at all, after the trauma involved in a robbery. Repairs to the facility also may be costly.

The money stolen is generally insured. But like any insurance, financial institutions have a deductible.

Nationally, roughly $77 million in cash, checks and other property was taken in bank robberies in 2003, according to FBI statistics. About $14 million of that was recovered.

From 1996 through 2000, the average amount taken from an individual bank robbery was less than $8,000, according to the FBI.

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. insures money at most banks, and the National Credit Union Administration insures most credit unions. Not all financial institutions are federally insured.

The who, what, why and when of robberies all vary, McClenaghan said.

The where, however, tends to center in Anchorage. Robberies generally are spread throughout the year, and they can't be pinned on the economy, bad winters or low Alaska Permanent Fund dividend checks.

It's just one of those things that people tend to do when they're ready, McClenaghan said.

"There are no real patterns here. Usually, the individual is strung out, down on their luck," he said. "In Los Angeles or Chicago, street gangs are often involved. They'll come in and shoot up the bank and take it over. Here, it's usually one person, sometimes with a weapon. They are not extraordinarily sophisticated robberies."

Bank robberies in the Lower 48 tend to be more violent than those in Alaska. Here, robbers typically pass a note to the teller demanding money, though a fairly recent robber used pepper spray to douse several tellers at one bank in south Anchorage. He was arrested shortly after.

One of the best, and most economical, new security features used by banks and credit unions throughout the world are digital security cameras. Digital cameras offer a clearer picture of the robbery than the old video devices of recent years. Digital also allows investigators to distribute more quickly a picture of the suspect to local police and the media.

Though not seen yet in Alaska, better security features in the Lower 48 include such things as bulletproof barriers and mantraps. Barriers separate the tellers from the customers, and transactions take place with push-through drawers, sort of like a drive-up window.

"Banks are reluctant to go to that because it takes from the personal relationship with the customer," McClenaghan said. "But bulletproof barriers prevent and deter attempts. Banks that have these, the robbers go elsewhere."

Mantraps are becoming more widespread in Europe and in some Lower 48 cities, he said. Here, banks install an outer and inner door where the first door must close and lock before the second door opens. When a robber tries to leave the bank, tellers simply hit a switch to lock the bad guy between the two doors to wait for police pick-up.

What do you do if you find yourself in the middle of a bank robbery?

"Most banks will tell you that the safety of its customers and employees are the most important consideration," McClenaghan said. "Bank employees are told to cooperate, not be a hero, and let law enforcement take care of things later."

That's the best piece of advice for everyone involved, McClenaghan said. If you can do it and be safe, the FBI also encourages everyone to be alert. Try to remember details about the robbery and the robber: What was he wearing? About how tall was he? What did he say? Which way did he go? Descriptions can be broadcast to law enforcement personnel out on patrol immediately, helping them to catch the robber more quickly.

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