Bandits made city banks their own personal ATM's at an alarming rate last year, staging a record number of robberies and getting big bucks from some financial institutions.
By the end of 2004, 187 bank robberies had been committed in Philadelphia alone, 80 more than the previous year and a record, said FBI spokeswoman Jerri Williams. In 2002 there were 84 bank robberies in the city, he said.
The wild upward spiral was part of a national trend, which has hit other big cities as well, including New York, Boston and Chicago, according to experts.
Officials admit they don't know what's causing the number of bank robberies to skyrocket - despite increasingly sophisticated bank surveillance, tracking equipment and locking vestibule double doors called "man traps."
There has been speculation that the increase was fueled partly by a poor economy or, possibly, by investigators being diverted to handle terror threats after 9/11.
A previous record of 158 Philadelphia bank robberies occurred during the 1991 recession.
"Maybe criminals think that with all this emphasis on terrorism, law enforcement is kind of turning their attention elsewhere," said Mike Carbonell, supervisor of Philadelphia's FBI violent-crimes and fugitives task force. Not so, he said.
The robbery rate last year slowed after police and the FBI stepped in to work with the banks on ways to halt the holdups - many committed by druggies looking for dope money - and catch the perpetrators.
Mike Cullen, a bank-security official and spokesman for the Delaware Valley Financial Security Officers Group, suggested the high number of holdups was due to repeat offenders.
"From what we've seen in the last year or so, it's the same people hitting us repeatedly. It's kind of caused a big spike," he said.
Capt. John McGinnis, chief of Philadelphia police major-crimes unit, which works closely with the FBI on solving bank crime, said he does not think the economy is to blame.
"When you look at who's robbing these places, they wouldn't be working anyway," McGinnis said. "They're junkies."
Stacy Irving, director of crime- prevention services for Philadelphia's Center City District, agreed that the majority of bank bandits are "some sort of addict - drugs, alcohol, gambling or some other addiction, primarily drugs.
"Many of them have confessed that they robbed the banks to support a habit, and once they've gone through all their ill-gotten gains they'll go back and rob banks again to support the habit," Irving said.
"A lot of it is drug-driven," Carbonell agreed. But there are also "crews," bands of armed thugs "just looking to make money," he said.
Among the crews were the city's most unusual thieves - robbers disguised in burkas, or enveloping Muslim female garments - who held up four area banks from October to the end of the year.
Although University of Pennsylvania police took in four people for questioning Dec. 23 in a string of holdups at stores around the university, as well as the banks, there have been no arrests yet in the burka cases, FBI spokeswoman Williams said.
During 2004, investigators tracked down 10 serial bandits, one of whom had committed 12 bank holdups in the city, said Sal Gambino, bank-robbery investigative coordinator for the Philadelphia FBI.
Fifty-seven suspects were arrested for city bank robberies last year, clearing 120 bank cases, Gambino said. Citizens Bank was hit 26 times. Wachovia accounted for a third of all the bank robberies, McGinnis said.