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Business: Stickup Surge

3 minute read
TIME

Even bank robbers need more

Everybody is struggling to keep pace with inflation, even the lowly bank robber. That is probably why the number of bank heists has roughly doubled in the past year in Atlanta, Washington and San Francisco. The FBI estimates that more than 4,600 bank robberies took place nationwide in 1978, up from 3,988 in 1977. Says Boris Melnikoff, director of security for the First National Bank of Atlanta, which was knocked over eleven times last year: “We blame it on the economy. We have a product that is very marketable. The professional bandit needs more money to survive.”

Many thieves are repeaters and ex-cons, but some are plain, middle-class folks. As Cleveland Mayor Dennis Kucinich was withdrawing his personal savings from a local bank in protest because it demanded payment on its loans to the city, his brother Perry was making a far less publicized withdrawal at another Cleveland bank last month—until he was caught and charged with bank robbery. In Chicago, a factory worker on the 3-to-11 p.m. swing shift was convicted of robbing eleven banks, all between the hours of 12:30 p.m. and 2 p.m. His total haul was $36,000. An FBI agent notes that the robber has a wife, children and “a lovely home.”

The rate of capture is not rising along with the rate of crime. In San Francisco, for example, the rate of arrest and conviction is only 50%. Part of the reason it is not higher is that the FBI, which once gloried in stopping John Dillinger and Willie Sutton, is now turning its attention toward the bigger-money white-collar crimes, such as embezzlement and bribery. “We have not been able to maintain our bank-robbery enforcement at previous levels,” admits an FBI spokesman.

So banks must provide even more of their own security. In some branches, New York’s Citibank has been installing floor-to-ceiling Plexiglas “bandit barriers” between tellers and customers. Banks are also using sophisticated detector devices to increase the robber’s risk of being caught. Among them: scented capsules wrapped inside rolls of bills, which, when squeezed, release the strong identifying odor of rotten eggs, and dye packs inserted in stacks of bills, which spew out smoke that stains everything it touches bright crimson. A few bankers’ groups offer rewards for tips leading to the arrest and indictment of robbers. The Washington Bankers Association has a payoff program that helped indict eight thieves in its first year. It is known by the acronym ROAR, which stands for RAT ON A RAT.

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