<p>WASHINGTON – It seems everywhere you look these days there’s another credit union robbery. Although quantifying how big this problem is nationwide is difficult, credit unions that have been victimized say there are substantial emotional and monetary costs that go along with each and every robbery. CUNA Mutual Group, which insures 95% of all credit unions across the United States, paid almost $4.75 billion in robbery claims in 2001, a figure 22.5% higher than what the insurer paid in 2000 and that represented a number 17% higher than what it paid in 1999. But because many credit unions accept these costs of being robbed as part of the cost of doing business and because these figures do not include the costs of preparing for robbery or cleaning up afterward, a complete understanding of the true and rising costs associated with this problem is likely to remain elusive. There are no universally accepted national statistics on credit union robberies. Since most credit unions are federally-insured, robbing one becomes a federal crime and by default subject to possible investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. But when releasing data on credit union robberies FBI spokesman Steve Berry cautioned against believing the data to be necessarily all-inclusive. “We record robberies where we are asked to help with the investigation,” Berry said, “Our count does not include robberies where the agency could play a role but is never invited. We know our numbers are low.” Robberies in places where there is not an FBI office, or where the state or local authorities take the lead in the investigation and make an arrest quickly are not liable to wind up in the Bureau’s numbers, Berry explained. So the only way to describe FBI data on credit union robberies is in minimal terms. According to the FBI, there were at least 444 credit unions robbed in the year 2000. Berry didn’t have data on hand to answer how that compared to 1999 or 1998. The Bureau does keep “live” statistics on the year in question and even breaks them down by state though it does not make that information available to the public immediately. It does sometimes share it with credit unions and credit union organizations. That is how Stacy Augustine, vice president of league policy for the Washington State Credit Union League found out that Washington State has the highest per capita rate of bank robberies in the country. Washington State has just toughened its bank robbery penalties in an effort to knock the incidence of both credit unions and banks being robbed. The Washington State league supported the legislation. CUNA Mutual attributes some of the rise in credit union robberies to more credit unions moving from being single sponsor entities with offices located in the company to having multiple employee groups or full community charters with street front operations. A CUNA Mutual white paper titled Managing the Risk of Robbery advises credit unions to be aware of robbery deterrence when choosing where to put a branch. “One way streets, heavy traffic and arterial intersections will guide your members to the credit union while making the criminals escape slow and predictable,” the white paper advised. That was certainly the case with the $4.4 million Interchange Federal Credit Union in Lavergne, Tennessee. “We wanted to expand and get out of the [Bridgestone tire] plant, so we got a new place outside,” said Gwen Overstreet, Interchange’s CEO. At 9:04 one morning, just after opening, the small credit union’s two tellers looked up to see two armed men burst through the door. They leapt over the credit union’s counter and demanded the cash and emptied the cash drawers before fleeing. Now Overstreet reported that the credit union has counter-to-ceiling glass between the tellers and the public area, and each of her six employees and herself wear security devices on their person that they can use to summon police if needed. “We wear them from the moment we leave our cars to come in to the credit union to the moment we are back in our cars at night,” Overstreet reported. She credited the glass for foiling a second robbery attempt and said that all of her employees feel safer with the security precautions they have taken, but admitted the costs to the small credit union have ranged in the thousands of dollars. Many credit unions contacted by Credit Union Times were reluctant to discuss the details of their robbery experiences, citing various privacy concerns and not wanting to draw attention to what they consider a bad episode in their credit union’s history. But off the record everyone agreed that their robbery experiences had jibed with law-enforcement’s basic categorization of robbery types: “note” or “take-over.” A note robbery is where a robber might saunter into the credit union, looking like a member, pass the teller a note with a threat and demand for money, collect the money when offered and escape. In a “take over” robbery the criminals often brandish weapons, make employees lie down, sometimes threaten and hit employees and generally terrorize them as they gather the cash. Credit unions reported “take over” robberies to be by far the worst and most likely to result in one of the greatest costs of robberies – credit union employee departure after the experience. There were no statistics on how many credit union employees move on after a robbery, but three of the five credit unions contacted for this story reported having lost employees after a robbery. Interchange experienced a “take over” robbery but, unlike other credit unions that were robbed, Interchange did not experience any employee loss. We are taking precautions and just moving on,” Overstreet said. When credit unions do break out the costs of robbery, preparing for it, the loss itself, and dealing with it afterward, the expense can be eye opening. Jim Peters, senior vice president with the $1.4 billion San Antonio Federal Credit has 24 years of experience with the credit union, during which time he reports that it has experienced a robbery 26 times. Peters runs the internal audit division of the credit union and in that capacity he estimated that just in preparing for robbery, attempting to deter robbery, and dealing with robbery afterward, San Antonio FCU spends at least $100,000 per year. Costs include time spent training employees what to do in a robbery; researching, installing and training staff on security devices; shut-down time after the robbery; post-robbery paperwork; and robbery losses themselves. In years with a lot of incidents the costs can be far higher than $100,000. Since the credit union has a $100,000 deductible on its robbery policy it often has to eat the losses from many robberies which can net as little as $2,000 but which can range far higher. Average losses are between $10,000 and $11,000, Peters reports. Although the credit union has experienced a number of take-over robberies in his history, Peters is pleased to report that the credit union has not lost any employees post robbery. “I won’t say that we haven’t had employees who haven’t applied to go immediately from the front line into a drive-thru or back room assignment after a robbery experience,” Peters said, “because we have. But we haven’t had any employees leave after a robbery yet.” Peter’s declined to give a definitive reason for San Antonio’s keeping employees when so many other credit unions lose some after a robbery, but he speculated that the credit union’s policy of having senior executives come to the branch after a robbery to interact with and listen to employees, along with the policy of letting the employees direct their own response, whether to leave the branch for some paid days off or to stay and confront their fears, for part of the reason they stay. Because Peter’s has had some “specialized training” he is often one of the first people to help counsel credit union employees post robbery. “I tell them some of the things they might expect to feel after this,” he said. “I let them know we consider a robbery a highly traumatic event that we know it will take some time to work through.” He said that some months after the robbery, San Antonio recognizes the bravery and strength of the employees who have come through a robbery, letting them know the credit union highly appreciates their efforts. “There is no way to really prepare yourself for a robbery,” Peters said. “It’s a bit like a death of someone close to you.” You can know that if you pick up the newspaper you can read obituaries of people who have died, but having someone close to you die brings death home. Robbery is the same way. “You can know that it happens, but getting hit yourself really brings it home.”</p>
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