Technology A Mixed Bag with Bank Security

Little Rock, Ark., police last week created an online profile for a man suspected of four bank robberies and posted it on the social-networking site MySpace.

Police hope someone will recognize images from a bank's surveillance video clips available on the site, which plays the "Bad Boys" theme song.

Resources such as this provide new avenues to nabbing criminals, but Chattanooga area banking and security experts say technology advances are both a blessing and a curse.

"Technology, on one hand, makes it easier for us to catch the bad guys. On the other hand, it makes it easier for them to do what they're going to do," said Detective Dave Scroggins of the Fort Oglethorpe Police Department and security consultant for Northwest Georgia Bank.

Cell phone cameras, computer programs that provide aerial views of banks and even simple branch locator searches on the Internet can act as tools to facilitate a bank robbery, he said.

But most bankers agree that advances in surveillance technology, such as digital monitoring systems and biometric security devices, have succeeded in keeping many criminals at bay.

"It's more a boon than a bane," said Brenda Daugherty, vice president of Citizens Tri-County Bank in Dunlap, Tenn.

The community bank is changing over to a digital surveillance system.

The new FSG Bank headquarters on Broad Street houses more than a dozen biometric security devices that register the fingerprint of employees before unlocking a secure area.

The bank instituted a digital surveillance system in 2004, with cameras that are connected to multiple flat-screen panel monitors in the bank's headquarters.

"Security has just gone as high-tech as anything else has," said Keith Sanford, executive vice president of First Tennessee Bank, whose surveillance went fully digital in the Chattanooga market in 2005.

Yet even common technology such as cell phones (now frequently equipped with still and video cameras) still give security guards reason to take pause.

Some criminals enter a bank branch talking on their cell phone to shield their face from view of surveillance cameras, or to stay in touch with conspirators outside the branch, said Special Agent Gary Kidder, FBI regional spokesman.

Security officer Russ Huntley, who guards the First Tennessee Bank branch on South Broad Street, said he is aware when patrons are using their cell phones in the bank.

"If a phone's out, it may not send up a red flag, but it may send up a pink flag," he said. "I'll keep an eye on them."

John Hall, spokesman for the American Bankers Association, said some banks have rules against cell phone use in branches, but these regulations are hard to enforce.

Few local banks seem to have restrictions on what people can wear or bring into branches. AmSouth, after a robbery, instituted a rule against hats, sunglasses or motorcycle helmets in branches, the Times Free Press reported in 2003.

Yet even if there is no explicit rule, many banks said they give employees license to ask customers to refrain from suspicious behavior.

"You've got folks that will come in with their motorcycle helmets on," said Rex Rutledge, manager for the BB&T branch on Broad Street. "As soon as I see that I say, 'Hey, I don't mind if you take that off.'"

Digital surveillance provides a clearer picture of a criminal and allows corporate security members to remotely access security data, bankers said. These advances have contributed to a impressive statistic: Three out of four bank robbers are apprehended within 18 months of their crime, said Mr. Hall of the ABA.

Security officials note that most bank robbers aren't all that tech-savvy and are often drug users.

"In my 26 years, most robberies are not that sophisticated. Robberies are usually a crime of desperation," said Mitch Weber, SunTrust's regional security officer.

"We got robbed by Santa Claus on a motorcycle one time," 10 years ago in Chattanooga, said Mr. Sanford of First Tennessee. "One time, they tried to rob us through the drive-in, and the teller just ducked down and hit the floor. Sometimes they aren't the most brilliant people out there."

According to the FBI Uniform Crime Report, there were 6,266 bank robberies in 2005, at an average value of $4,169.

"Generally, we see a spike in bank robberies regionally," Mr. Hall said. "It happens if there's increased drug activity in an area ... or if there's been significant lay-offs or the economy is particularly bad."

For all the high-tech advances, low-tech security is sometimes the most effective, security officers said.

The friendly greeters often found in bank branches have as much to do with security as customer service, said Detective Scroggins.

"That's probably the single greatest deterrent to a bank robbery that you're going to have," he said. "It just gives you the feeling that everybody in this bank is watching me. If you feel that way you're going to go someplace else. You're going to pick a softer target."

Bank officials emphasized that resources spent on bank robbery prevention can't compare to the drain from white-collar crimes such as identity theft, forgery and check fraud.

"That's where the technology is really hurting us -- on the white-collar crowd," said Mr. Sanford of First Tennessee.

E-mail Emily Bregel at