Saturday, November 14, 2009

This is a stick up

The week this story ran there had been three or more armed robberies in recent weeks. I should have talked to someone from the FBI, but I still learned a lot.

Published Feb. 10, 2006, in the Keizertimes

Bank robberies baffle even those thoroughly versed in the ins and outs the banking business.

"I'm shocked that they are still a problem. The penalty for committing a bank robbery is a long stretch in federal prison for what is usually a small amount of money," said Steve Ryker, vice president of regional security for Wells Fargo Bank.

Ryker added that more than 80 percent of all bank robbers are caught.

However, an air of mystique surrounds the bank robbery.

By Ryker's own admission, the amount of money the culprit escapes with isn't released precisely because banks don't want to fuel the belief that one of the country's oldest institutions is ripe for the picking.

Ostensibly, that's the smart move, but there's another possible interpretation.

If they're not saying, exactly how much did the crook get away with?

The average bank heist nets the criminal less than $5,000, according to a 2002 special report by the FBI. The report studied bank robberies between 1996 and 2000.

Ryker said Oregon banks were robbed 133 times in 2005, a decrease from 2004's 192 bank robberies.

The decrease can be interpreted as the result of increased crackdowns on drug abusers, who Ryker said comprise the predominance of bank robbery perpetrators.

Ryker said a robbery situation is made far more difficult to control because the perpetrators are often under the influence of drugs.

The banks' response to that problem is to control what they can – their employees and customers.

"Our goal is to create a safe environment, even in the event of a robbery," Ryker said.

Ryker urges those that perceive banks as merely handing over the money to take the bank out of the equation.

"If someone is being mugged they are going to do what is necessary to keep them and their loved ones safe and that means complying with demands to make sure no one gets hurt," Ryker said.

Bank robberies come in two styles, the note-passing and the take-over.

In a note-passing, the robber gives a note to a teller at the bank and requests money with an implied threat of violence if his demands are not met.

The recent robbery at Keizer branch of Washington Mutual fell into the second, far less frequent, type of bank robbery: the take-over. In a take-over, the criminal or criminals make a show of their crime by announcing themselves to the entire bank and making demands of both bank employees and its customers.

Ryker said the unifying element of both types of robberies is the threat of violence. That is why banks opt to comply with a robber's demands rather than risk turning a threat of violence into an act of one.

That doesn't mean banks are revolving doors, Ryker stressed. In addition to exhaustive employee training, banks are turning to digital video cameras to aid in the fight.

"Digital video cameras allow us to get a picture out in minutes rather than the days it took with old film cameras," Ryker said.

There are different schools of thought on the matter of armed guards. Ryker said it's a matter of getting what you pay for – the steeper the cost, the better the protection.

"Regardless of what security company is used, I personally think it is better to have guards outside the bank than inside," he said.

Ryker said there are also other deterrents that might lose their effectiveness if they became publicly known.

In the case of Wells Fargo, Ryker said the bank often offers a reward of up to $5,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the crook.

After the robber has left a bank, his acts echo throughout the bank and the lives of its employees and customers.

"For most bank employees it is a shock to their system. They often lose sleep and the same effects can be seen in their loved ones who worry for their well-being," Ryker said.

The same goes for the customers.

Keizerite Crystal Sherman had just sent a deposit inside the bank from the drive-up window at Washington Mutual last week when she saw a man wearing a ski mask and waving a gun.

Sherman, who had her sister and niece in the car with her, immediately pulled away from the bank and called the police.

She said she had bad dreams over the next two nights.

"They eventually went away, but my primary though was, ‘I hope they catch that guy,'" she said.

Ryker said such occurrences aren't uncommon, but the Wells Fargo is equipped to provide counseling for both employees and customers.

Robberies also affect the bottom line of the banking business. Contrary to popular misconception, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. does not reimburse banks for such losses, unless the bank has purchased special insurance.

"Any losses from robberies come right out of the bank's pockets," Ryker said.

Ryker said the most effective deterrent to any robbery is striking at the heart of the problem, which doesn't start anywhere near a bank.

"We need to do whatever we can to curtail drug use in our own communities," he said.

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