FBI braces for bank-robbery boom

As the economy continues to go into a tailspin, the FBI is bracing for a potential spike in bank robberies as Christmas approaches.

"The holidays are a stressful time for everyone, and with the economy on top of that, we anticipate the desperation factor to play a part in the thoughts of individuals who otherwise normally would not do something like this," FBI Special Agent Juan Becerra told the Deseret News on Wednesday.

It's no secret among law enforcement that crime goes up in bad economic times. Desperate people are often driven to do drastic things. The FBI said nationally, bank robberies are up slightly. Locally, they have not increased to noticeable levels.

"However, we anticipate that with the economy the way it's moving and as people become financially despondent, that could go up," Becerra said.

Many financial institutions the Deseret News contacted were reluctant to discuss any concerns about a robbery trend. Some financial institutions said they have placed their employees on alert this time of year for suspicious activity -- but more for bad checks than bank robberies.

"We sort of always brace ourselves for the holidays," Zions Bank executive vice president Rob Brough said Wednesday. "We certainly see often an increase in attempted fraud in difficult economic times and the holidays."

While not wanting to stereotype the typical robber, Becerra said a lot of people they have arrested admit to robbing a bank or credit union to feed a drug habit. In the past, federal agents have seen convicted felons who have struggled to land a job once they're outside of prison.

"I've had guys that have robbed a bank because they needed money to buy a beer, a Big Gulp or cigarettes," he said.

Beyond banks and credit unions, the FBI is seeing a trend of entire ATMs being swiped. Recently, federal agents were called to the College of Eastern Utah in Price where an ATM vanished.

To combat the problem, the FBI and members of metropolitan law enforcement agencies meet weekly to go over robberies in the Salt Lake area. Robbers are given monikers to easier track them ("the hoodie bandit," is one example).

"All police departments are being appraised, briefed on the latest trends, subjects we're looking for, methods used to rob," Becerra said. "We're working with our local counterparts to leverage resources."

Financial institutions also conduct regular trainings with their employees on what to do in the event of a robbery. They have also made sweeping upgrades to their surveillance technology.

"Four to five years ago it was straight VCRs, poor-quality black-and-white images," said Travis Clegg, the director of security for Utah Community Credit Union. "It's all digital now. High-quality, very responsive equipment."

Brough said his employees were all well-trained to deal with any number of problems.

"We engage our employees in continual training on what to look for and procedures in the event that something does happen and how to handle it," he said.

Bank robbery carries a potential 20-year federal prison sentence, and an extra five years is tacked on if there's a weapon used. Thus far, the Salt Lake City FBI office boasts an 80 percent robbery solution rate.

"If you come to Salt Lake City and try to rob a bank, we're probably going to catch you," Becerra said.