Then there was the case in the late 1990s of the bank-robbing car salesman. He was a man in his early sixties, a 23-year Army veteran, married 44 years, the father of four grown children, and for a decade a top-producing salesman at Koons Ford in Falls Church. After starting an investment business and running up big credit-card debts, he turned to robbing banks and was charged with hitting nine in Northern Virginia before he was caught.
Keeping Bandits at Bay
Since the day when frontier banks rang a cowbell during a holdup in hopes that somebody would gun down the crooks as they rode out of town, banks have played a chess game with robbers over keeping their money secure. Federal law requires banks to use security devices to prevent robberies. But banks also are interested in avoiding a fortified look that might alienate customers.
The security arrangements in banks are well known to bandits. Most are better at helping to track down suspects later than in nabbing them on the spot.
Silent alarms. These devices, triggered by pushing a button hidden beneath a teller’s counter, alert police or a bank security office that a robbery is in progress. The FBI says they are set off in about 90 percent of robberies. But robberies happen so fast that police often get there too late, and some robbers threaten tellers with harm if they set off the alarm.
Surveillance cameras. Banks have multiple cameras, many trained on people approaching teller windows, and the FBI says they record 95 percent of all robberies. These images can be fed quickly to police cars, detectives carrying BlackBerrys, and local television stations and newspapers. They also provide solid evidence in court. Arlington County police have taken to posting them on YouTube; photos of the robbery of a BB&T bank in Rosslyn last January have garnered more than 13,000 hits.
Dye packs. These little devices, slipped in with the cash by tellers, explode within a few minutes, splattering red or violet ink over the bills and in some cases also spewing a cloud of tear gas. The tear gas calls attention to a bandit during a getaway, and the ink, which is hard to remove, marks clothes and skin and makes spending the money difficult. Dye packs are used in only about 13 percent of robberies, says the FBI, partly because bandits warn tellers not to use them.
Bandits in this area have been caught when dye packs exploded inside their jackets, in their cars, in taxicabs, in buses, and on the Metro. In one incident a man robbed a bank on K Street and ran into the Farragut North Metro station, where the dye pack went off, sending coughing and teary-eyed riders running up the escalator.
Some bandits try to salvage the damaged money, trying to clean it off in washing machines or launder it in vending machines that dispense gift cards. Much of it ends up being tossed away. Some dyed cash was found in Rock Creek Park during the search for the body of Chandra Levy.
Bait money. These are bills with prerecorded serial numbers that are handed out by tellers so police can alert merchants. Bait money is deployed in about 35 percent of robberies, says the FBI, while newer electronic tracking devices are used in fewer than 4 percent.
Bandit barriers. The most common barriers cover the front of teller stations in bulletproof plastic, with a slot for the exchange of documents and cash. They most often are used in branches that have been victimized before or that security experts believe are vulnerable. Their downside is that they are costly and may give customers an uneasy feeling.
Guards. They are less common because their deterrence value comes with a downside: They are expensive, and armed guards heighten the possibility of gunplay. Banks are most likely to use them on a temporary basis during a spree of robberies, in high-crime areas, or in banks that have been victimized repeatedly—situations when police and FBI agents also occasionally employ stakeouts. Armed guards are more common accompanying armored cars, which carry large amounts of cash to and from banks.
Lobby lookouts. Banks sometimes place greeters at desks near the front door. They give the bank a welcoming feeling, but their job is also to watch for potential bandits. Some banks post signs asking that customers remove hats and sunglasses.
Cash management. Most bandits approach a teller window to demand money, with only about 5 percent ever getting into the vault. Losses can be minimized by limiting the amount of cash in teller drawers.
Compliance. Given the potential for violence, banks train their employees to comply quietly with a bank robber’s every demand. They are told to remain calm and act quickly. The idea is that it is far better to give up some cash than risk the death or injury of an employee or customer. Most banks carry insurance covering robberies, though deductibles are far higher than typical losses.
Security experts advise customers caught in a robbery to do the same: Be quiet, do as you are told, and don’t try to be a hero.
Robberies on occasion are thwarted by employee ingenuity or by acts of daring that are not recommended. Bandits have been known to leave in frustration when told that their demand notes are illegible. During a robbery at a credit union in College Park, the teller at a drive-in window slipped a note out to a driver, who alerted police.
Stick ’Em Up
Most bank robberies are little dramas that follow a script played out in an atmosphere of surprise, anxiety, and potential violence. Most of the time a single bandit demands cash from a single teller. And it all begins and ends quickly because bandits want to get away before police arrive, and the bank wants them to leave before gunplay breaks out.
The FBI has found that Friday by a slight margin is the day bandits most often strike. Last year, nationwide, more than 1,250 robberies occurred on Friday, compared with 1,160 on Monday and just over 1,000 on Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday. With more banks now open on weekends, 460 took place on Saturday and about 70 on Sunday. It may be that bandits need money for weekend drugs and partying or that extended banking hours on Friday offer a bigger window of opportunity.
The FBI has discovered that while bandits strike at all hours, they are slightly more likely to show up between 9 and 11 am, perhaps because they figure the bank has fresh cash. There are occasional “morning glory” heists, where bandits lie in wait and confront employees as they are opening the bank. In a case in California, a couple of teenagers in ski masks tried to open a bank’s locked front door a few minutes before it opened, then went back to wait in their car, where they were picked up by police.
Some detectives have noted an uptick in bank robberies in the Christmas season, when everybody needs a little extra cash. Winter also gives bandits a couple of advantages—early nightfall offers better cover for escape, and coats and hats used as disguises are less conspicuous than in summer.
The dress code among bank robbers favors the casual, often featuring a hoodie over the head. Many bandits wear gloves so they won’t leave fingerprints, and they carry away the loot in everything from backpacks and briefcases to trash bags and grocery sacks. Headgear includes everything from a bike helmet to a beret, though a stocking cap or a baseball hat with logo are most common.
Occasionally a robber will be dressed to impersonate a police officer, security guard, package-delivery person, or highway construction worker, complete with a hardhat and reflective vest. There have been cross-dressers in wigs. And a man who robbed several banks a few years ago in suburban Maryland wore Middle Eastern desert clothing and became known as the Sheik.
So rare is a suit and tie that anyone who shows up in such attire may get a nickname from police. Dapper Dan robbed a bank on King Street in Alexandria last year wearing a suit, tie, and fedora. And another well-dressed man, dubbed the Gentleman Bandit, robbed half a dozen banks in DC’s downtown business district until he was captured last year in an alley after hitting a SunTrust Bank at 19th and K streets.