Bank Robberies On The Decline As Risk Outweighs The Rewards

Audie Cornish talks to Jack Nicas, staff reporter at the Wall Street Journal, and why bank robberies have been on the decline.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Few crimes are as romanticized in pop culture as the bank robbery.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIES, "BONNIE AND CLYDE," "POINT BREAK" AND "RAISING ARIZONA")

FAYE DUNAWAY: (as Bonnie Parker) Well, I'm Miss Bonnie Parker. And this here is Mr. Clyde Barrow. We rob banks.

PATRICK SWAYZE: Hello, hello, ladies and gentlemen. We are the Ex-Presidents. And we need just a few moments of your time.

JOHN GOODMAN: (as Gale Snoats) All right, you hayseeds, it's a stick-up. Everybody freeze. Everybody down on the ground.

RUSTY LEE: (as Feisty Hayseed) Well, which is it, young feller? You want I should freeze or get down on the ground?

CORNISH: Well, in the real world robbers just aren't holding up banks like they used to. Nineteen ninety-one, there were almost 9,400 bank robberies nationally. By last year, that number had dropped to less than 4,000.

So what's changed? For that we turn to Jack Nicas of The Wall Street Journal. Jack, welcome.

JACK NICAS: Good afternoon.

CORNISH: So you wrote in the journal this week that criminals are starting to see bank robberies as basically riskier these days. How come?

NICAS: Well, bank robberies are at high risk, low reward crime. It's very likely that a bank robber is going to get caught, according to police. And, you know, last year, bank robbers just took about $7,600 per bank robbery. Now, compared to about 15 years ago, they were taking nearly 12,500 per robbery. So it's just not worth it to them in some cases.

And also, coupled with the fact that from the comfort of their own home, for some of the more sophisticated criminals, they can rob some of these banks and some of these customers just right from their computer.

CORNISH: Now, as a former bank teller, I remember that they had the little dye pack, which you were supposed to give the robbers that would kind of explode in some colorful dye all over them, or the panic button. I mean, is this about better security?

NICAS: Yes, absolutely. There are a multitude of different strategies banks are employing, including, you know, the two you mentioned. And also, they put tracking devices now into some of the cash. They also have employed bandit barriers, which are bulletproof barriers in front of tellers. And also, they have in some of the most risky neighborhoods they've installed vestibules that essentially can lock a bank robber inside.

CORNISH: So you also write that sentencing is another factor. And you tell the story of two bank robbers who experienced really radically different justice.

NICAS: Right. So federal sentencing guidelines in 1987 really gave judges a lot more power to hand down much tougher and much longer sentences to bank robbers. In the early 1980s, a former Los Angeles antiques dealer robbed about 64 banks single-handedly. And this gentleman only got about a 10-year sentence or so. And within several years after he got out he was again robbing banks.

And in the same city, L.A., in the early 1990s after the federal sentencing guidelines were passed, a teenager who had been convicted of robbing just a handful of banks, he was delivered with a 73-year sentence he is still serving today.

CORNISH: So, Jack, is there an upside to this, perhaps that there is less violence?

NICAS: Absolutely. Last year, in 2011, bank robberies left 13 dead and 88 injured. And both of those statistics are 40 percent lower than 2003. But what we can see is cyber crimes are taking much more money than bank robberies ever did.

CORNISH: So tell us a little bit more then about cyber crime online and bank robberies. What kinds of crime is most prevalent?

NICAS: Well, it's really a variety of things. It can range from your simple Craigslist scam. But one of the things that banks especially are looking at and have found is a favorite of criminals, is attacking the checking accounts of customers actually. And especially small businesses, because they have larger piles of cash, per se, and they don't have the security controls of a bigger company.

And so basically the cyber criminals are able to hack their way into checking accounts and pull money that way. So with this shift to cyber crime you're actually seeing the target is less-so the bank, but actually the customer.

CORNISH: Well, Jack, thanks so much for talking with us. It was really interesting.

NICAS: Thank you.

CORNISH: Jack Nicas is a reporter for The Wall Street Journal. He wrote this week about the decline of traditional bank robberies.

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