Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

Factors Contributing to Bank Robbery

Understanding the factors that contribute to your problem will help frame local analysis, determine good effectiveness measures, recognize key intervention points, and select appropriate responses.

Increases in bank robberies can largely be explained by three factors.

  1. More bank outlets and extended hours increase opportunities for robberies.
  2. Banks remain the most lucrative of all robbery targets; moreover, 80 percent of stolen money is never recovered.
  3. Bank robberies are usually fast, low risk crimes, because employees are trained to comply with a robber’s demands. Moreover, although the risk of arrest is high, much of this risk is short term, and risk – as reflected by clearances – has declined over time.

Increased Opportunity

Banks are plentiful and, in many places, increasingly so. Retail banking is highly competitive, and consolidation in recent decades through mergers and acquisitions has led to an expansion into new markets. In 1970, there were approximately 22,000 bank outlets in the United States; by 2000 that number had more than tripled to 70,000.9

Much of the growth in the number of bank outlets is attributable to the explosion of mini-branches—also known as in-store branches—in retail grocery stores and big-box retailers such as Wal-Mart.10 The increase in in-store branches is predominately an urban phenomenon. In-store branches less expensive to open and to operate than traditional branches, and banks can capitalize on exclusive agreements with particular retailers to rapidly increase the number of outlets. Because profit underlies bank expansion efforts, the number of branches within any jurisdiction can substantially expand or contract over time.

† The rise of in-store branches has been paralleled by the loss of others. In Australia, the number of branches dropped from 5,003 to 1,300 in 10 years; bank robberies also dropped precipitously (Borzycki, 2003 [PDF]).

Although bank branches in supermarkets might seem especially vulnerable to robbery, the escape route is difficult to navigate because of shopping carts, displays, strollers, and numerous customers. Credit: Julie Trinks

Once well-known for “banker’s hours”—referring to a short working day— many branches now have extended operating hours. To attract customers, virtually all in-store branches remain open into the evening hours during the week, operate a full day on Saturday, and may offer Sunday hours as well. The increase in operating hours effectively increases bank exposure to robbery by at least 25 percent. As banks have become more convenient for their customers, they have also become more convenient for robbers.

Lucrative Rewards

Although many banks limit the amount of cash on hand and control access to it within the branch, banks nevertheless remain a source of easy cash for robbers. In fact, banks are the most lucrative commercial robbery targets. In the United Kingdom, banks suffer the highest average losses from armed robberies.11 In the United States, bank robbers net just over $4,000 per robbery; this represents about 60 percent of financial losses from commercial robberies, despite the fact that bank robberies comprise less than 10 percent of the total for this crime type.12

† This loss is the amount reported by local police in the Uniform Crime Reports. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (2003) [PDF] reports that the average loss is $8,000.

Although the average take hardly seems worth the punishment, interviews indicate that most robbers would be satisfied with much less.13 In addition, although many bank robbers are eventually apprehended, the stolen money usually is not: only 20 percent of money taken in bank robberies is ever recovered.14

† Calculations of average losses are somewhat misleading as they include robberies in which no money is taken; including losses from these failed robberies dilutes average bank losses. If such attempts are excluded in calculating averages, the average loss increases by nearly 25 percent (Matthews, 1996 [PDF]). Reporting averages also masks big takes. In Dade County, Florida for example, only 10 percent of robbers stole over $10,000; however, the most successful robbery netted $60,000. In Chicago, a solitary robbery in 2004 netted more than $225,000 (Vardalis and Cox, 1998; McCormick, 2005).

Low Risk

For a robber, there are three main reasons why bank branches may be considered predictable and relatively low-risk targets.

  1. Branches have standardized designs and predictable layouts and operations.
  2. Bank employees are unarmed and consistently compliant. Even robbery transactions are handled quickly and efficiently.

    Employee characteristics likely affect a robber’s perception of compliance; tellers are often young and predominately female, whereas robbers are predominately male.

  3. Most robbers avoid apprehension, at least initially.

Predictable Design

Banks have highly uniform business practices and interior designs.15 Branches have a predictable physical footprint that features a centralized entry and a group of chest-high teller windows arrayed in close proximity to the entrance. Although such uniformity may help customers feel comfortable banking in any branch, it also provides great predictability for robbers.

Compliant Victims

During a robbery, bank practices are highly standardized; consequently, robbers know that they can count on compliant victims. Most banks—consistent with police advice—direct employees to comply quickly with robbers’ demands.16 Tellers willingly empty their cash drawers when presented with a simple robbery demand note, whether or not violence is threatened or a weapon is displayed. The bank’s primary objective is to protect the safety and security of its employees and customers by reducing the likelihood of violence. Consequently, the risk that a robber will encounter resistance is extremely low.

Bank employees are so compliant that the robbery itself is a quick and efficient transaction; more than two-thirds of bank robberies are completed in three minutes or less.17 Robbers often wait in the teller’s line with legitimate customers and pass a demand note to the teller. In many robberies, the event is handled so discreetly that other customers and even other employees are not even aware that a crime has occurred until after the robber has left the premises.

Risk of Apprehension

Although arrest is the primary risk to a bank robber, most do not believe they will be caught.18 Indeed, most bank robberies are successful, at least initially†† – about 10 percent of all bank robberies fail19—that is, the robberies are not completed. the failures no doubt contribute to the 15 percent of bank robbers who are arrested at the scene20 and the one-third of bank robberies that are solved the same day.21 Overall, 60 percent of bank robberies are solved†††and about half are solved within 30 days. 22 However, it takes up to 18 months to catch 75 percent of the suspects who will eventually be arrested.23 As with other crimes, bank robberies that are not solved quickly are less likely to be solved at all.24

†Bank robbers face risks of injury or death during the commission of the crime; in fact, the robber is the person most often killed (Pastore and Maguire, 2005; Erickson and Balzer, 2003).

††Failure rates vary over time. In the U.S., the percentage of failed robberies within a year has climbed higher than 25 percent (Cook, 1983; Hauge, 1969). In Australia, 11 percent of bank robberies failed in 1991; the rate more than doubled by 2002 (Borzycki, 2003). Failure rates reflect the impact of crime prevention efforts. For example, higher failure rates have been observed at banks with bandit barriers and at banks where employees resist the robbery attempt.

††† In the United States, the FBI reports solution rates for bank robberies; these are similar to the clearance rates that are defined for local police by the Uniform Crime Reports. Solution and clearance rates do not take into account how an offense was solved. For example, where a bank robber has committed numerous robberies before being apprehended, a single arrest will clear multiple robberies, including offenses in different jurisdictions. Many of the latter will likely be cleared exceptionally by agencies in those jurisdictions, as reasons outside their control prevent the individual from being prosecuted for each offense.

Although the clearance rate for bank robbery is among the highest for all crimes, the rate has declined. In the United States, bank robbery clearances have dropped from 80 percent in 1976 to 58 percent in 2001;25 clearances vary by region, from as low as 34 percent to as high as 80 percent.26 In Canada and Germany, 60 to 70 percent of bank robberies are cleared.27

Bank robbers are predictable, as they continue to rob, often on the same day, and employing the same modus operandi in successive robberies. It is often this repetition—the use of particular signature or trademark, such as a distinctively worded note or a similar disguise—that leads to their apprehension.28 As a result, a single arrest may clear numerous bank robberies. In London, for example, the arrest of each bank robber clears an average of 2.8 bank robberies.29

When robbers are arrested, multiple witnesses, surveillance images, and physical evidence contribute to high prosecution and conviction rates. In the United States, where most bank robberies are federal offenses, 93 percent of bank robbers tried in U.S. district court in 1990 were convicted and sentenced.30 Federal sentencing guidelines result in a 20-year sentence; sentences can be increased by five years if a weapon is present during a robbery.

Bank Security Practices

Banks have many security practices and are usually considered the most secure of all commercial businesses. Banking security practices are highly standardized,31 and electronic security is commonplace—even among branches that are robbed. By 2000, 98 percent of robbed branches had both cameras and alarm systems.

The widespread adoption of bank security practices has reduced average losses from robbery, contributed to high clearance rates, and may have reduced violence in robberies. Other than among robbed banks, the prevalence of different security practices is unknown; thus, there is no clear evidence that any single security practice prevents robbery. In fact, most studies show that robbed branches have as many or more security features than do branches that have never been robbed.32

Traditional bank security practices—alarms, surveillance systems, bait money—have focused on increasing the likelihood that an offender will be apprehended. Some banks have adopted more proactive security strategies that are designed to thwart robberies before they occur. For example, some have implemented cash management practices that make robberies less lucrative by restricting the amount of cash on hand; others restrict physical access through the use of bullet-resistant bandit barriers between customers and bank employees; and still others employ access control vestibules (also known as man-catchers) to stop weapons from being brought into the branch.

Bank decisions about security practices reflect a variety of goals: protecting the safety of customers and employees, attracting customers, generating profits, protecting bank assets, recovering stolen money, and apprehending offenders.

  • Some banks are concerned that security measures such as bandit barriers or employee resistance that might thwart robbers will lead to violence or hostage taking. There is mixed evidence, however, about the contribution of such practices to escalating violence,33 likely because of differences in robbery in different places.
  • Some banks feel that visible security measures—such as limiting bank access or bandit barriers—put off customers who value an environment that appears not to need such obvious security devices.
  • The expense of security devices is a factor for some banks. In fact, some smaller banks have been forced to close or to limit banking and security services because of the cost.34

There is no evidence that every bank or branches needs to adopt the same rigorous and expensive crime prevention practices—practices that can sometimes make a branch look like a fortification. Instead, different branches face different robbery risks, even those that are quite near to one another.

Types of Bank Robbers

Ever since the era of Bonnie and Clyde in the 1930s, violence—or the potential lethality suggested by the use of weapons in bank robbery—has shaped crime prevention efforts. Many security strategies, such as bandit barriers and weapon detection devices, have been developed to thwart armed robbers; employee compliance has been widely advocated to prevent a robber from using violence.

These strategies focus on the risk of bank robberies committed by professional armed robbers. However, most bank robberies do not appear to be well-planned offenses committed by professional criminals; instead, increasing evidence suggests that many bank robberies are spontaneous and opportunistic crimes that are often acts of desperation.35 Consider that:

  • Solitary offenders commit the vast majority—nearly 80 percent—of bank robberies.36
  • Weapons are uncommon in bank robbery and their use is declining. Up to 72 percent of bank robbers are unarmed offenders who do not use or even threaten violence.37

    † In 1987, 71 percent of bank robbers in Australia were armed; by 2002, only 48 percent were.In 1980, half of all bank robberies in the United States featured a visible weapon; this dropped to 30 percent in 2000. The use of weapons varies between places: 44 percent of bank robberies in Florida involved a weapon, whereas only 20 percent in New York City and Massachusetts did (Borzycki, 2003; Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2003; Vardalis and Cox, 1998; Pacelle, 2003; Weir and Santos, 2003).

  • Overall, about 60 percent of bank robbers do not bother with disguises; only 7 percent of robbers in Florida did. 38
  • More than 80 percent of arrested bank robbers have no prior convictions for bank crime.39

Because most bank robberies are committed by solitary, unarmed and undisguised offenders, they can be considered the work of amateurs rather than professionals. In contrast, it is the less common armed bank robberies that more often involve multiple offenders and the use of disguises.40 Distinguishing bank robberies as the work of amateur or professional robbers provides important insight about the risks of robbery at a branch, and thus guidance in selecting crime prevention strategies most likely to be effective. Targets that attract amateur robbers may discourage professional robbers while targets that are attractive to amateurs will often hold little appeal for professionals.41 Further, although discouraging an amateur robber is much easier and the approach different than thwarting a committed team of professionals, the measures that might deter an amateur may well increase the likelihood of violence by professional robbers.

To a great extent, robbers can be classified as amateur or professional based on known characteristics of the robbery —the number of offenders, use of weapons and disguises, efforts to defeat security, timing of the robbery, target selection, and means of getaway (see Figure 3).

Bank robberies by amateurs are less successful: nearly one-third of all bank robberies by unarmed solitary offenders fail.42 Takeover robberies—those involving multiple armed offenders—are less common but more lucrative: losses in takeover robberies are 10 times greater than average. 43

Takeover robberies have spiked in some locations; this has largely been tied to gangs. Rehder and Dillow (2003) attribute a huge spike in bank robberies in California in 1991 and 1992 to gangs. Moreover, the FBI reported that gangs were involved in most of the takeover robberies in Los Angeles in 2003.

Amateur bank robbers seek different targets from professionals and commit their offenses at different times. Solitary offenders tend to rob banks around midday, when branches are full of customers; professionals, on the other hand, prefer to operate when there are fewer customers, such as at opening time, which increases their control of the crime scene. 44

Figure 3: Distinguishing Professional and Amateur Bank Robbers
  Professional Amateur

Offenders

Multiple offenders with division of labor
Shows evidence of planning
May be older
Prior bank robbery convictions
Travels further to rob banks

Solitary offender
Drug or alcohol use likely
No prior bank crime
Lives near bank target

Violence

Aggressive takeover, with loud verbal demands
Visible weapons, especially guns
Intimidation, physical or verbal threats

Note passed to teller or simple verbal demand
Waits in line
No weapon

Defeat Security

Uses a disguise
Disables or obscures surveillance cameras
Demands that dye packs be left out, alarms not be activated, or police not be called

 

Robbery Success

Hits multiple teller windows
Larger amounts stolen
Lower percentage of money recovered
More successful robberies
Fewer cases directly cleared
Longer time from offense to case clearance

Single teller window victimized
Lower amounts stolen
Higher percentage of money recovered
More failed robberies
Shorter time from offense to case clearance, including more same-day arrests
Direct case clearance more likely

Robbery Timing

Targets banks when few customers are present, such as at opening time
Targets banks early in the week

Targets banks when numerous customers are present, such as around midday
Targets banks near closing or on Friday

Target Selection

Previous robbery
Busy road near intersection
Multidirectional traffic
Corner locations, multiple vehicle exits

Previous robbery
Heavy pedestrian traffic or adjacent to dense multifamily residences
Parcels without barriers
Parcels with egress obscured

Getaway

Via car

On foot or bicycle

† This table is not prescriptive as it generalizes about bank robberies. Some factors will not fit your local pattern and there will be exceptions that fit no category. The reader is encouraged to use the table as a starting point to separate and categorize local robberies.

The method of escape further distinguishes amateur from professional robbers. Cars are not the sole means of escape; many offenders escape on foot or even by bicycle, at least initially. In 1978, for example, 80 percent of bank robbers used getaway cars,45 whereas vehicles were observed in only one-third of robberies in the 1990s.46

Get-away vehicles are more prevalent when there are two or more offenders: 72 percent of robbery teams use vehicles, which reflects some degree of planning.47 In contrast, 58 percent of solitary robbers escape on foot. Two factors discourage solitary robbers from using vehicles: without an accomplice to drive the vehicle, it must be parked and quickly accessible to the robber; further, solitary robbers typically select targets that are convenient, such as close to their residence making a car unnecessary. In contrast, professional bank robbers appear willing to travel farther than other robbers, perhaps because there are fewer banks than other types of commercial targets or because banks tend to be clustered geographically and are open fewer hours.48

† The mode of escape cannot always be established, as bank employees may fail to observe the escape. Robbery escapes, of course, may initiate on foot, and resume with another mode of transportation.

Escape Routes in Target Selection

Because many bank robberies are the work of amateurs, it may appear that robbers randomly select targets. They do not. Instead, robbers select targets primarily based upon their concern with getting away from the robbery quickly.

Although much effort to reduce bank robbery has focused on bank interiors and security measures, most bank robbers do not feel that they are at risk of apprehension during the commission of the crime.49 Instead, robbers assume that there will be easy access to cash and that the robbery will be completed quickly. Thus, robbers are relatively unconcerned about alarms and cameras, neither of which will slow their escape.

† Some bank features such as bank size, number of entrances, lobby size, and number of tellers may affect ease of escape; larger banks may have more exits and the greater hustle and bustle may mask both the robbery and the escape.

A robber’s choice of target is shaped by two escape features: the type of transportation available and the ease and number of escape routes.50 Because offenders prefer choices during flight, they tend to select targets that have more than one escape path.

† Some targets are equally attractive to robbers on foot or in cars.

Solitary offenders typically cannot escape in a vehicle because of the logistics of parking and retrieving a vehicle. Thus, solitary offenders typically escape on foot and select targets with the following features.

† An escape can include distinct phases; for example, an initial escape may be on foot and a robber may then retrieve a vehicle stashed nearby.

  • Parcels that are open and accessible to foot traffic, without barriers such as fencing or dense impermeable shrubbery; these may be parcels with pedestrian pathways or alleys, or parcels that are accessible from other commercial premises.
  • Escape routes that prevent a robber from being easily followed. These include banks that abut wooded areas, numerous small streets, railroads, ditches, or creeks.
  • Obstructions that block the view of the proposed escape route, such as architectural features, adjacent buildings, hills, foliage, fences, or walls and even cars in parking lots.51
  • Parcels that open directly onto pedestrian traffic52 or that are adjacent to dense residential areas, where offenders can easily disappear or stash an escape vehicle. Many offenders take care to walk away from a robbery, as running will distinguish their behavior from that of other pedestrians.
  • Offenders escaping on foot avoid targets that are too isolated; targets that require them to cross large parking lots, open areas, or major streets with heavy traffic; and targets that force them to navigate areas filled with shopping carts, cars, or too many pedestrians.53

In contrast, multiple offenders typically escape in a vehicle—often stolen54 —and thus select quite different targets.

  • Targets with easy vehicular access, such as banks on corner parcels, near intersections, or spanning parallel streets, that provide multiple points of egress and several choices of direction.55
  • Branches on multiple lane roadways with two-way traffic: for example, 61 percent of bank robberies in Dade County, Florida occurred on such roadways.56
  • Streets with traffic volume that is busy but not standstill. Although it is widely believed that bank robberies occur in close proximity to major highways, many do not. One study found that 70 percent of robbed banks were more than two miles away from a major highway.57
  • In unfamiliar areas, robbers in vehicles select targets near major roadways so that they can avoid getting lost if a chase ensues.58 Robbers in cars do not select targets located in cul de sacs, or on narrow one-way streets, and avoid routes with traffic signals that may hinder their escape.59

Despite these distinctions, some branches may be equally attractive to robbers on foot or in cars. Other targets may be vulnerable because of their proximity to alternative methods of escape, such as taxis or subways.

Distinguishing the type of escape associated with individual branches can guide the selection of effective crime prevention strategies. For example, controlling vehicular access may thwart professional robbers but will have little impact on amateurs; on the other hand, blocking pedestrian access will likely have little impact on professional robbers.

Robbery Risk and Prior Victimization

Because bank robbery is not a common crime, it may appear random, which suggests that all banks are at a high risk of robbery. In the short-term, however, the vast majority of branches do not get robbed. For example, during one year only 2 percent of branches in West Germany were robbed,60 only 8 percent of branches in Indiana were robbed,61 and only 14 percent of branches in Canada and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania were robbed.62

As the time period increases, however, more branches are victimized: in two years, 31 percent of branches in Washington, D.C. were robbed;63 in five years, 41 percent of branches in California were robbed;64 and in 10 years, 52 percent of branches in Washington, D.C. were robbed.65

The increasing percentage of robbed branches levels off over time: after 10 years, nearly half of all bank branches will not have been robbed, while branches that have been robbed once are often robbed again—a phenomenon known as repeat victimization. Figure 4 depicts this trend by using a multi-year map that compares robbed and unrobbed branches in one jurisdiction.

† See the Problem-Oriented Response Guide Analyzing Repeat Victimization.

Because robbed branches are often robbed again, these contribute disproportionately to the number of bank robberies.

  • In the United Kingdom, 15 percent of all bank robberies in two years were repeat robberies.66 In three years, 37 percent of robbed branches were robbed two or more times and comprised 58 percent of all bank robberies.67
  • In Seattle, Washington, 63 percent of robbed branches were victimized two or more times; these generated 82 percent of all robberies during a four and one-half year period.68
  • In Washington, D.C., 12 percent of branches were robbed five or more times in 10 years; these branches generated more than one-third of all bank robberies during this period.69
Figure 4: Sample Map: Bank Robberies over Multiple Years

Figure 4: Sample Map: Bank Robberies over Multiple Years
(Symbols are scaled in size to the number of robberies)

Robbed branches are distinctly different from unrobbed branches in their future victimization risk. A branch that has never been robbed faces a low risk of robbery, whereas a robbed branch has a substantially higher risk. In Indiana, for example, robbed branches were three times more likely to be robbed in the succeeding three years than unrobbed branches.70 A branch that has been robbed multiple times faces the highest risk of all.

Repeat robberies may be committed by a robber who returns to reprise a successful crime or to complete an attempted crime. A repeat robbery is particularly likely if the robber felt the crime was easy; many offenders describe bank robberies this way.71

The pattern of repeat victimization is so strong that not all repeat robberies can be attributed to repeat offenders. Repeat robberies also occur because the features that attracted an initial robber—such as an easy escape route that remains unchanged—are likely to attract other like-minded robbers. Some believe that publicity about successful bank robberies attracts copycats, but there is no evidence that this is so.72

Studies show that the risk of repeat victimization is most acute in the short-term: at least one-third of repeat bank robberies occur within two months of a previous offense.73 Because bank robberies are a low volume crime, multi-year data is often necessary to identify such patterns. Repeat victimization continues over longer periods of time; these patterns can best be identified when robbed and unrobbed banks are compared. The risk of repeat victimization is so strong that robbed banks are often surrounded by unrobbed banks (see Figure 4).

Temporal Patterns of Bank Robbery

Virtually all studies of bank robbery examine the day of the week and time of the day of the robbery. In many ways, this is possible because banks—in contrast to other businesses—typically have limited operating hours. Bank robbery data is particularly reliable for crime analysis, because all offenses are reported and the time reliably established.

Fridays are generally the most popular day for bank robberies, accounting for about 25 percent of all such crimes.74 In the United States, an increasing number of bank robberies occur on weekends—about 7 percent of all bank robberies occur on Saturday—consistent with the extended operating hours of banks at in-market and some traditional banks.75

The most popular time for bank robberies is morning through midday. Bank robberies concentrate at opening time in West Germany and the Netherlands, whereas about one-third in the United States occur between 9 AM and 11 AM. In Dade County, Florida, half of bank robberies occur between 10 AM and 12 PM.76

†In the Netherlands, 23 percent of bank robberies between 1988 and 1994 occurred between 9 AM and 9:59 AM.

††In the 1980s, 32 percent of bank robberies in the United States occurred between 1 PM and 3 PM.

Knowing the day and time of bank robberies is useful in distinguishing between types of bank robbers. Professionals target opening hours because there are fewer customers or because of expectations about the amount of cash that is on hand from morning deliveries and the emptying of night safes and deposit boxes.77 Opportunistic robbers, on the other hand, opt for times of day when customers are more numerous.

Banks are at a higher risk on Friday because many have extended operating hours. The risk is even greater during winter, when early darkness provides cover for escape.78 Cold weather further facilitates robberies by allowing perpetrators to use coat collars, scarves, and hats for disguises. In the Netherlands, bank robberies in winter near closing time increase by nearly 700 percent.79 Fridays may also be more popular because the increased payday traffic attracts solitary offenders who prefer busy banks; in addition, robbers motivated by drug and alcohol addiction may want money for partying over the weekend.80

Information about common robbery days and times may lead police to focus on surveillance and apprehension, which may be appropriate for investigations relating to specific offenders. It may also be useful in developing short term prevention strategies.