Just 25 years ago, L.A. was embroiled in fear and uncertainty over its rise as the bank robbery capital of the world. In fact, bank robberies were ruining things in a lot of U.S. cities — three of the 10 worst heists in American history, after all, went down in 1997. That was also the year of the infamous North Hollywood shootout, in which two robbers terrified cops and civilians alike with an extended armed struggle that left the streets bloody.
These days, however, the idea of a bank robbery making major news seems almost quaint. L.A. certainly has seen a sharp fall in the crime — and the same is true for the rest of the country. It turns out that banking, like a lot of other retail industries, has really shifted under the tides of digital tech.
The security upgrades, too, begin with the most fundamental bank interaction of all. That is, back in the 1980s and 1990s, it was normal to walk into a bank and speak face-to-face with a teller for a transaction, without a barrier protecting them. Now, bulletproof glass is standard issue for most retail banks — along with high-resolution security cameras, tighter controls on who has access to money and lower cash balances, notes Jeff Zisner, president and CEO of L.A.-based security consulting firm AEGIS.
These changes were adopted first by higher-risk institutions in urban centers, but as security protocols sharpened and tech got cheaper, the improvements trickled down to smaller banks and credit unions, too. It was definitely effective: The average U.S. heist netted more than $10,000 in 2003; less than a decade later, in 2011, the FBI found the average haul had dropped to about $7,500. Meanwhile, the big-time takeovers glamorized in movies like 1995’s Heat are now more or less extinct after peaking in the mid-1990s, when the FBI estimated a third of L.A. robberies were of the “everybody on the ground” kind. Similarly, non-violent robberies committed with the passing of a note now garner less and less cash, with heists often yielding less than $1,000.
In Zisner’s mind, the falling appetite for bank robberies can be chalked up to a number of things. “Number one, it’s going to be more difficult to do. Number two, you’re not going to get as much as you used to. Number three, there’s a greater likelihood of getting caught. And number four, the responders are very well-equipped so there’s a good chance that you might get killed,” he tells me.
In other words, he adds, “The value proposition isn’t what it used to be.”
Far more popular than robbing banks is simply defrauding them: Institutions face about $2 billion in losses from check and debit fraud, compared to just $30 million in robberies. As FBI special agent Jeff Lanza told Marketplace, “The ones that are taking place now are a crime for the less skilled, who aren’t smart enough to commit identity theft or file false tax returns.”
In a way, this has made banks largely complacent about the threat of losing a few thousand dollars in a non-violent robbery; thus, in the right venue, with the right planning, ex-cons say it’s not hard to get away with some cash in hand.
Case in point: In a series of Reddit Q&As, former bank robber Clay Tumey downplayed the real level of risk he faced during his short-lived career. “As for a bank robbery seeming like an impossible task to get away with, I’d guess that most of your perspective is shaped by things that aren’t totally true but are common public perception. For example, people think that, one, this is a big deal to banks, and two, police are good at solving crimes. No disrespect to law enforcement, but it’s really hard to solve so many crimes. And anyone — with a little thought and few morals — can commit this particular crime without getting caught,” he wrote.
How? Well, the most vulnerable targets tend to be smaller banks that get good traffic but are located far from a local police station with limited security resources. That might mean no bulletproof barrier between the teller, or no guard personnel on site. Often, banks of this scale have vulnerabilities that they haven’t fixed because there’s less money to spend and less risk to consider, Zisner explains. In one example, a manager of a credit union he was consulting with revealed that they had a habit of letting customers use the bathroom in the back offices, which sometimes led to the security door being left ajar.
Vulnerable targets or not, though, robbing banks is no way to sustain a living financially. The paydays aren’t much, even in a country like England where the robbery cash comes in higher volumes. Meanwhile, studies show that most bank thieves get caught after their third job. They often have a hard time resisting, like Tumey did: “When I did the one, I wanted to do it again. I don’t know. I wish I could explain it. I’d volunteer to be a part of any study to figure out why people do dumb shit once and then twice and then again and again until they go to prison or die,” he wrote on Reddit.
As for big-money scores, it requires bigger thinking than walking into a bank with confidence and some amateur surveillance. Like this September 2013 heist in which a group stole $2.1 million from Barclays after executing a sophisticated plan in which they posed as IT workers, set up software to access bank computers remotely and then quietly transferred money from customer accounts into their own offshore accounts. Or this $1 million ATM ring that was narrowly busted after working like clockwork to extract cash using high-temperature torches. Or this ingenious plan to steal Louis Vuitton bags with a little help from the UPS and a false phone call.
The latter is a good example of what Zisner has noticed in the world of crime: For most small-time cons, it’s not about cash, but property they can resale. It’s why home burglaries and other property crimes are up in a number of U.S. cities, especially in his home state of California. “Even if you have an alarm system, because police are typically inundated, an unconfirmed burglary is usually a low priority call. So if you wait until someone leaves the house, give it 20 minutes and break in. There’s a good chance you’re going to get away with stuff. The people who hit over homes can do it with small teams relatively effectively and in very short periods of time,” he explains.
If the tides are shifting, what does the future of bank robberies look like? First and foremost, banks are only get harder to crack, especially with the rise of automated services taking the place of the human teller. And, in a dark irony, bank security isn’t improving because of thieves — it’s the workplace gunman, ready to sow random violence, that’s motivating the most change. “In America today, the major threat to businesses isn’t so much someone trying to rob you, it’s your employee going off the handle and coming back and killing people,” Zisner tells me.
Basically, then, with all due respect to the valorous bank robber, it’s the mass shooter whose image we can’t shake today.