Banks Try to Increase Access, Security

May 2, 2006
Challenges of putting a bank on every street corner and in retail locations make security difficult

Going to the bank has never been easier, but the convenience of having a teller on virtually every street corner here has also given potential robbers more choices to pick from.

Competition for customers is driving bank expansion throughout the country, fueling the push for extended and increasingly irregular banking hours. Many consumers can now apply for a home equity loan on a Sunday night at the same place where they buy their groceries.

"If a new bank moves into a market, all the other banks take notice and will work to adopt any changes that bank may have because of competitive concerns," said John Hall, spokesman for the Washington D.C.-based American Bankers Association.

And while hold ups are not a new problem for the banking industry, enacting security changes to deter potential robbers can be challenging when consumers expect more access instead of less.

"Banks are kind of caught between a rock and a hard place," said J. Branch Walton, president of the National Association for Bank Security, based in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. "As you make a business easier to access for customers, at the same time you could be making it easier for robbers."

Nationally, there were fewer bank robberies in the U.S. last year. But figures provided by the Chicago area FBI office show that the number of hold ups here have been on the rise for several years, which culminated with a record 238 hold ups in 2005.

The increase has coincided with a Chicago area bank building boom that has outpaced the rest of the country, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

"There's just more targets out there for bank robbers to hit," FBI spokesman Frank Bochte said.

Industry observers say the market in Chicago is among the most fragmented in the country. "There's just dozens and dozens of banks competing in the market," said Morningstar analyst Craig Woker.

The rise in robberies has led some banking executives to evaluate their security measures. Finding the right balance between security and convenience is difficult.

One high-tech deterrent, a vestibule that tellers can lock as an offender tries to escape, was disabled at a bank in a predominantly black neighborhood in Chicago after community activists protested the so-called "mantrap" doors in 2004, said Tom Kelly, a spokesman for J.P. Morgan Chase & Co.

"We try to use the right level of security, which is based on each individual branch," he said, adding that tellers at some Chase banks now work behind bullet-resistant glass.

Nova Comm Security Systems, Inc. has manufactured mantrap doors for banks in Florida, Detroit, Beverly Hills, Calif., and other U.S. cities. Their units feature a metal detector that screens customers for weapons before they can enter the bank.

Doug Mac, business manager for the Trujillo Alto, Puerto Rico-based company, said consumers have expressed very little opposition to Nova Comm's products.

"In most areas, if you educate the customer and the staff right way and let them know that this is there for their protection, they understand that," Mac said. "There's a lot of these units in Philadelphia and you basically have customers helping other customers learn how to use them."

Some banks are also restricting what customers wear.

After several of its 33 branches were hit by the same ski-mask wearing robber, West Suburban Bank installed signs asking customers to remove their hats, hoods and sunglasses. The Lombard, Ill.-based company says a similar program in Missouri reduced the number of robberies in participating banks by 40 percent.

"There's a buzz. Employees are paying more attention to those people that come in with hats and hoods," West Suburban Vice President Craig Kelbus said.

Federal authorities are still analyzing data for 2005, but preliminary figures show that there were 6,800 bank robberies in the U.S. That's fewer than in 2004, when there were 7,556 robberies, or 2003, when 7,465 bank robberies were reported in the U.S.

"The funny thing is there is no rhyme or reason" to the fluctuating numbers, FBI spokesman Steve Kodak said. "If you would go back and look at the numbers for the last 20 years, you'd see it goes up and it goes down. There's no specific trend."

One of the biggest decreases was in the Los Angeles area, the "bank robbery capital of the world."

There were 455 robberies recorded there in 2005, the fewest in decades, said Laura Eimiller, a spokeswoman for the FBI's Los Angeles office. The Los Angeles area typically records between 500 and 700 bank robberies a year, she added.

In 1992, there were more than 2,600 robberies in Los Angeles. "Since then, we have declined steadily," Eimiller said.

She attributed the decrease to tougher sentencing laws, increased collaboration between federal and local police departments and new security devices.

The Miami area also saw a significant drop last year, but FBI Miami spokeswoman Judy Orihuela said that is partly due to changes in how robberies are reported.

The FBI's Miami office recorded only 94 bank robberies in 2005, down from 248 in 2004 and 178 in 2003.

"There could be others that the locals didn't report to us," Orihuela said.

Banking officials say most bank robbers usually net a few thousand dollars, at the most. The real harm comes in the form of reputational damage.

"It's not about the money," Hall said. "A bank's number one concern is the safety of its staff and customers."

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