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SAN DIEGO – Robberies at credit unions have more than doubled since 1990, with robbers viewing credit unions as much easier targets than banks and other financial institutions, according to one of the most experienced bank robbery investigators in the United States. “Credit union robberies over the last 14 years have, with slight variances, moved progressively and precipitously upward, from 221 in 1990 to 494 by the end of 2003, a 224% increase,” noted Bill Rehder, who spent 31 of his 33 years with the FBI in Los Angeles as a bank robbery investigator. Rehder said the numbers “present a troubling trend,” considering that the banking industry experienced a drop in robbery activity during most of the 1990s. “Certainly one reason for the credit union increase . . . is the bandits perceive a lack of security at credit unions,” he said. “Therefore, they consider credit unions to be softer targets than other financial institutions.” In contrast, the number of bank robberies nationwide fell from a high of 9,536 in 1992 to 7,412 in 2003, he reported. In the greater Los Angeles area, considered the “robbery capital of the world,” the number of bank robberies plummeted from 2,641 in 1992 to 549 in 2003. Rehder attributed the dramatic decline in bank robberies in the Los Angeles area to efforts by banks – not law enforcement – to beef up security. One of those banks was Wells Fargo, which in 1990 launched major prevention strategies to stem bank robberies, said Bill Wipperecht, a senior vice president and chief security officer for the bank. Speaking at CUNA Mutual’s 2004 Discovery Conference here, Rehder, Wipperecht and Jim O’Dell of CUNA Mutual provided an in-depth look at the crime, the criminals and preventive measures that could help credit unions. Rehder, who co-authored the book, “Where The Money Is-True Tales From The Bank Robbery Capital of the World,” said credit unions typically are attractive targets to robbers. “Credit union branches with fewer personnel and members inside become very tempting targets, especially when the loot from these robberies is significantly larger than achieved at other financial institutions,” he said. “In fact, credit union robbery losses in our area over the last five years were on average double that of similar robbery losses at traditional banks. And bandits go back to their neighborhoods and tell others about their successful credit union attacks, which of course leads to additional attacks often at the same victim’s credit union.” Robberies at credit unions also involved more violent takeovers, rather than a single person passing a note or demanding money from a teller. “By 1997 and 1998, nine out of 10 credit union robberies in our area involved a takeover,” Rehder said. While the number of actual robberies was small, 60 percent of them involved a takeover, double the number sustained by other financial institutions, he noted. While Rehder cited LA as the hotbed of bank robbery activity, he warned that credit unions in small towns across America were not immune from attack as the crime wave moved across the country. “Don’t think you’re immune from bank robberies or this bloody behavior just because you’re located away from the big areas of New York and Los Angeles,” he said. “Robbers have rediscovered the small town and distant suburban bank and credit union. Nearly one-third of the robberies at the nation’s financial institutions occurred last year in a small town setting, up from 20 percent in 1995.” He said most of the crimes were committed by serial offenders, narcotics addicts, street gangs and “subsistence” robbers. The latter were described as people who, affected by a downturn in the economy or their personal situations, viewed bank robbery as a “quick fix” for their problems. Wipperecht, a noted corporate security expert, offered credit union officials numerous suggestions to beef up security. Among them was improved staff training, developing a good working relationship with law enforcement, establishing a reward program and upgrading cameras with digital video systems. He also advised that security guards should patrol outside the institution and be highly visible; that electronic tracking systems that rely on microwave towers be replaced with GPS systems utilizing satellite tracking, and that institutions install bandit barriers along its teller lines. Wells Fargo began installing the floor-to-ceiling bullet-resistant bandit barriers in its Los Angeles area branches in 1990, he said. “A vast majority of the robbers, they just walk in, see what you’ve got, and turn around and walk away,” Wipperecht said. “We’ve had branches in LA that were robbed from three to eight times a year. Many of those, the majority, have never been robbed since.” Wells Fargo is so confident of the bandit barriers that if robbers come in and demand money – either by passing a note or pulling a gun on a teller – the request is ignored. “The teller just looks at them, lays down, yells robbery and presses the alarm,” he said. “If you’re standing at the counter with a gun and you can’t see anybody, what are you going to do,” he asked. “You`re going to do what 99.9 of them (do) . . . turn around and run out.” He said in cases where a gunman may threaten a customer or employee in the bank, the policy is to simply give the robber the money and try to get the person out of the bank. “We’re real believers in it (the bandit barriers),” he said, adding that the devices have not had any negative impact on income at the branches. Wipperecht also suggested a security screening entry and exit system, sometimes referred to as a “man trap.” The entry system, consisting of a set of double doors, requires a customer to pass through a metal detector. Entry to the bank is controlled by the tellers. Customers exit through a separate set of doors made of bullet-resistant glass. By locking both sets of doors when a robber is exiting, the robber could be trapped between the two sets of doors. “We’re in a tough business,” Wipperecht said. “We have the tools, we can purchase the tools, we can implement the tools, but it’s up to groups like this to do just that so we can control bank robberies.” O’Dell said that robberies at credit unions were “not a substantive financial crime.” “It pales in comparison when you look at losses . . . from check fraud, internal dishonesty, plastic card loss,” he said. “But that doesn’t mitigate in any way, shape or form the severity or focus of our efforts to reduce and manage the robberies that are occurring at credit unions.” He said robberies were “the single most severe threat” to employees and members of credit unions. “That is what it’s all about,” O’Dell said. “The money is replaceable. But not your employee.” Rehder said the need for credit unions to beef up security was now more important than ever, given that the FBI has shifted and restructured much of its emphasis to counterterrorism. “All other matters are secondary,” he said. “Bureau emphasis in bank robberies as part of its violent crime program has certainly taken a hit, usually in the form of reduced manpower responding to bank and credit union robberies.” Should another terrorist attack occur in the U.S., similar in scope to the train bombing in Madrid, Spain, “such an event might result in the bureau’s complete retreat from the bank robbery scene and the loss of your local FBI’s role as coordinator, investigator and clearinghouse for bank robbery information over multiple counties and states,” he said. “To address such a possibility, this group must think ahead and consider some possible changes regarding the hardening of their targets at individual credit unions,” he said. -

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