'Stick 'em up': Bandits rob banks with little more than bad spelling

Some states and cities see a surge in heists. Banks now emphasize security alongside customer-friendly atmosphere.

Bank robbers once needed to take hostages, wield guns, or crack safes to get their loot. Now the job often requires little more than a pair of dark sunglasses and a menacing note.

That's a scenario the FBI has seen unfold in financial institutions across the country. Bank robberies rose 64 percent last year in New York City. Massachusetts saw a 30 percent rise - to 303 robberies. Heists were also up statewide in Utah, Oregon, and Oklahoma.

Not all the bank jobs are successful. The desperate attempts include the kind of "stupid robber tricks" that draw laughs on late-night TV. And nationwide, there hasn't been an overall jump in robberies in 2003. But the problem is significant, tripling in some cities.

It has baffled bank employees and law-enforcement officials alike, who have scrambled to halt the tide.

Some blame a bad economy. Others say that more attention on national security post-9/11 has meant less attention to banks. Most agree that longer banking hours, additional branches, and friendlier environments have played at least a partial role in the way banks are robbed, and the number of times they are hit.

"Banks, which used to be structured like vaults, with armed guards, and all kinds of imposing structures that said, 'Don't mess with us,' have in general moved to an open, friendly tone, as a means of encouraging depositors to come in and use the bank," says Alfred Blumstein of the Heinz School of Public Policy and Management at Carnegie Mellon University. "That same appeal could well appeal to bank robbers."

Especially those who prefer magic markers over guns as their weapon of choice. In Forth Worth, Texas, a 92-year-old man was sentenced in January to 12- 1/2-years behind bars after a five-year robbing spree. His latest robbery, in October, involved passing an envelope to a teller that simply read "Robber" in fat red letters.

The far majority of robberies are bloodless these days. According to a report released this fall by the FBI, bank bandits carried guns in only 32 percent of incidences. Violence occurred in about 4 percent of robberies, and a victim was killed in less than 1 percent.

"This is not the bank robbery of Hollywood lore, with some fellows going in there with guns, looking like the Wild West," says Tom Repetto, president of the Citizens Crime Commission. In fact, in more than 80 percent of the cases in New York City, notes were passed to the tellers, a shift from traditional bank robberies. "Not too many years ago ... men went in with guns and met with guns."

Nowadays, robbers are holding up banks with bad spelling. In January, a man passed a note in a Gainesville, Fla., to a teller that read: "If a die pack blows, so do you." The misspelling - a dye pack is a bundle of fake money that explodes into a smoky dye - was used to tie the criminal to two other nearby robberies with similarly misspelled notes.

Sometimes the penned threat backfires - on the thief.

Last June, a bank robber outside of Pittsburgh handed a teller a piece of paper with his home address and telephone number, before demanding money. After he fled with more than $4,000, the police paid him a visit.

Where robber-blunders have failed to catch a thief, police and bankers associations have stepped up security efforts. In 2001, the Massachusetts Bankers Association created a task force with local and state police, says Peter Blanchard, vice president of member services for the association. One visible outcome: all members post signs on their doors insisting that customers remove hats, sunglasses, and hoods before entering.

A website was created in 2002 with photos of robbers caught on camera, at www.Massmostwanted.org. And throughout the state's 1,500 branches, the force has suggested several preventive measures, like keeping tellers behind floor-to-ceiling bullet-resistant "bandit barriers." "There are a number of deterrents you don't see as well," says Mr. Blanchard.

As a result, robbers are continually hunting for fresh opportunities outside city limits. "There is a little more of traditional bank robbers moving outward toward the suburbs, areas they perceive to have less security, like bandit barriers, places they think are easier targets," says Supervisory Special Agent Michael MacLean of the FBI.

In New York City, the bank robbing crisis has caused a rift between the banking and law-enforcement communities, who disagree over the best way to deter robberies. New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said that the banks are not doing enough. In 2003, 408robberies were reported to the police department - a notable increase over the 249 robberies reported in 2002.

Mr. Kelly backs a pending City Council bill that would require bandit barriers in all city banks. Police also advocate wider use of exploding cash packs that coat robbers with a bright dye.

But the New York Bankers Association opposes mandatory bandit barriers, saying they don't deter robbers. It instead favors "vigilant surveillance," silent alarms, and tougher sentences.

"Banks walk a fine line between convenience and security," says John Hall, a spokesman at the American Bankers Association. "Their No. 1 concern is making sure their branches are secure, but not at the risk of making potential customers feel like bank robbers."

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