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.
McGinnis said despite the unusually large number of robberies, the heists began to decline after police, the FBI, security personnel and organizations like Irving's started meeting in March with bank officials.
"Early in the year we had some problems," McGinnis said, because banks were allowing large sums of money to be kept in individual tellers' drawers and turning over "very large sums of money," to anybody who showed up with a demand note.
Early in the year, $26,000 was stolen in one holdup, he said.
Banks were also were delaying notification of police, calling corporate headquarters first, McGinnis said.
One thief walked right out of a bank he had just robbed and flagged down a cab with a bank- robbery stakeout team outside because the bank had not alerted police to the holdup, McGinnis said.
"These guys, they go back to the neighborhood, and everybody starts thinking it's bank robbery a great idea.
"It's an easy, nonthreatening robbery,"McGinnis added. Better than the corner store, "where the owner might have a gun."
"We had some resistance from banks," concerned that heavy security might frighten off customers, McGinnis said, but eventually there was agreement on new security measures.
"Some of the banks put in some new technology last year that we support, like a satellite tracking device," stashed in with the money, he said.
Some have equipped branches with "man-trap" revolving doors, which lock the bandit in as he tries to flee with the loot, McGinnis said.
"They're very effective, all bulletproof glass. Even if they a bandit were to pull out a gun and start shooting, the bullet would start ricocheting around."
New digital-surveillance cameras, which can send finely detailed photos from a crime scene quickly by e-mail to law enforcement and the media, also are being used by banks, said Joseph Mason, a banking expert and associate professor at Drexel University.
Some believe some of the increase in bank robberies may be related to bank mergers and rapid expansion of branches, with security measures trailing behind, he said.
The number of Center City bank robberies declined as the year progressed, Irving said.
But still, 73 holdups were committed in the sixth and ninth police districts in Center City in 2004, 43 percent more than the year before, she said.
Irving said Center City banks had 12 robberies last January and two in December.
But bank robbers were branching out farther into the suburbs and South Jersey, she said.
Gambino, of the Philadelphia FBI, said there had been 458 bank robberies in the eastern half of Pennsylvania and three nearby counties in New Jersey in 2004, compared to 320 in 2003 and 246 in 2002.
Said Carbonell: "A lot of the time the guys doing robberies out in the counties are from Philadelphia."