Robbing a bank ain’t what it used to be

High-stakes crime has moved online, but a desperate few still seek bundles of cash
By TE-PING CHEN  |  August 22, 2007
OLD SCHOOL: Bonnie and Clyde lived an
alternate version of the American Dream
during the Depression.

From Butch Cassidy to John “the Jackrabbit” Dillinger, bank robbers have long encapsulated the American penchant for high-stakes gambling, fast getaways, and a go-your-own-way ethos of living. Even today, bank robbery remains enshrined in American pop culture as the great populist crime, with desperadoes serving as somewhat twisted contemporary Robin Hoods — robbing from the rich and living large off the loot.
But a closer examination reveals just how much the trade of bank robbers has changed. With the evolution of the Internet, the greatest spoils for maverick thieves these days are to be found online. With the accompanying rise of better bank security, hold-ups — once the province of the aristocrats of street crime — have mostly become the hardscrabble, last-ditch option of the desperate.
Not that the crime shows any signs of going away. The past few decades have seen banks opening more branches (the number of bank outlets more than tripled from 1970 to 2000), extending business hours, and designing open-floor lobbies that increasingly resemble living rooms. In catering to the customer, they’ve created more convenience — and temptation — for criminals.
Last year, there were 6985 robberies of banks, savings and loans, credit unions and armored-carrier companies nationwide, a number that tends to rise and fall with the economy, says Margot Mohsberg, a spokeswoman for the American Bankers Associa¬tion. Since experiencing a post-September 11 spike, that quantity has dropped by 9 percent, but it remains higher than it was two decades ago. Likewise in Rhode Island, the number of annual bank robberies — there were 28 in 2006 — has fallen over the past couple years, but it remains significantly higher than in the ’70s and ’80s, when it often hovered in the single digits.
But if there are more bank robberies these days, there are also more bank robbers getting caught. Prior to J. Edgar Hoover’s expansion of the FBI in the 1930s, American bank robbers were virtually home-free once they crossed state lines. Now, with changes in technology, the percentage of bank robberies that get solved is second only to murder. According to the FBI, 75 percent of robbers end up behind bars within 18 months after hitting a bank. After all, bank heists are generally committed in broad daylight, in full view of several witnesses, and usually on camera, to boot.

Bank robbing is also a high-profile crime that commands attention from law enforcement. “So when the chief tells me, ‘I want a phone call by the time I go to bed, and I want to know who did this bank robbery,’ ” says Major Stephen Campbell of the Providence police, “there’s a lot of pressure there to solve it.” Last year in Providence, police solved 95 percent of all bank robberies. Most cases are closed within weeks.
With the rise of sophisticated Internet crime gangs, the old-fashioned bank robbery seems almost an anachronism, a criminal equivalent of the eight-track tape, its persistence a perplexity. According to the US General Accounting Office, online thieves were responsible for more than $67 billion in losses in 2005, mostly through identity theft. And because the majority of these illicit operators are based overseas, in places from Zimbabwe to the Ukraine, successful extradition and prosecution is difficult, if not impossible.

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