The $1.4 billion Ascend Federal Credit Union, headquartered in Tullahoma, Tenn., made headlines when one of its branches was robbed three times in three weeks, but experts in preventing bank robberies said that multiple robberies in the same location by the same thief are not unusual.
The credit union confirmed media stories about the robberies but declined to take additional questions about the incidents, citing the ongoing investigations. No one was injured in the robberies.
In each incident, a robber entered the CU's branch in Smyrna, Tenn., and implied he had a gun without actually displaying a weapon. He then demanded and received money before fleeing on foot to a car waiting nearby and speeding away.
Local media quoted the police speculating that the robberies had been conducted by the same person each time, and CU management confirmed that this was its suspicion as well.
Although it goes against the old saw about criminals not wanting to return to the scene of their crimes, Michael Petrone, a risk manager with CUNA Mutual, said it is not that unusual for thieves to hit a bank or credit union branch a second or even third time after they have already robbed it once.
Petrone said that there is often a comfort question. A thief would have already done the preliminary examinations of a branch that he or she has robbed. The robber would know the branch schedule and know what to expect, he explained.
"In addition, they usually know that everyone is going to be a little shaken up after a robbery," he said. "So, if they are robbed again pretty quickly, they are probably not going to have all their systems in place or be ready to remember things as well," he explained.
The possibilities that a robber might hit the same location multiple times is strong enough that some credit unions will bring a guard into a branch that has been robbed for a month afterward just to dissuade any further attacks, Petrone said.
Petrone described one memorable case where a robber who had robbed a credit union branch several times had been found to have been living across the street from the branch. The credit union had brought in a guard after the branch had been robbed but then had been puzzled that the branch had been robbed again on the day when the guard was not there. "The robber just watched and waited for the day when the guard did not come in," Petrone said.
The FBI does not collect data on the numbers of times a robber might hit the same location, but the bureau's overall robbery numbers showed that the number of robberies had dropped from 2009.
According to the bureau's data, there had been 335 robberies at CUs by the end of third-quarter 2009 versus 269 robberies at CUs by the end of third-quarter 2010. There were 470 credit unions robbed overall in 2009, according to the data. Data from fourth-quarter 2010 has not yet been released.
Robberies at commercial banks were also lower, the numbers said, though by not as much. By the end of third-quarter 2009, 3,562 commercial banks had been robbed versus only 3,224 by the end of third-quarter 2010, the FBI's records showed.
Petrone said CUNA Mutual has continued its ongoing effort to help credit unions dissuade robbers, survive when robberies do occur and recover more quickly after they are over.
Most of the things CUs can and should do don't cost that much money, Petrone stressed. Simply reiterating to staff that robberies can and do occur can help them keep the possibilities at the tops of their minds.
Other good ideas are to put up the graduated markings near doorways to help staff get a more accurate impression of a robber's height, training staff to remain calm during a robbery and to notice as many details as they can, and establishing relationships with post-trauma counselors so they can come in as soon as possible after a robbery-within hours is best-to help staff evaluate and recover from the experience, Petrone said.
According to the FBI's numbers, 94% of bank robbers in 2009 were men, and the most robberies took place at branches on Fridays between 9 a.m. and 11:00 a.m. Most of the branches robbed were in metropolitan commercial areas (robberies in shopping mall branches came in a distant second).
In the vast majority of cases, robbers never progressed further into the branch than the teller counter, used notes or made oral demands on the branch staff, only threatened a weapon a minority of times and displayed a weapon even less frequently, the data said.
As more credit unions have opted to build their own branches, rather than renting spaces for branches, many are considering building robbery prevention tools and safeguards into the branch designs, Petrone added. Popular design adaptations include making sure security cameras are placed with clear lines of sight over all the teller lines and installing "man-trap" doors in a way that made them appear less institutional and intrusive.
Antirobbery measures have come a long way from the thick clear plastic barriers between tellers and members, Petrone said, adding that CUNA Mutual often consulted with credit unions about which changes provide the most prevention for the dollar.
Finally, Petrone urged credit unions that had been robbed to do what they could to limit the publication of the amount of money they had lost in a robbery. "Publishing the amount of money taken in a robbery can act like a red flag for other thieves in the area," Petrone said.