They make it seem like easy money. In several recent high-profile bank robberies, thieves walked into banks, armed with nothing more than a note. Minutes later, they walked out with an undisclosed amount of cash.
But appearances can be deceiving. Though bank robberies are on the rise, according to the FBI and criminologists, they may not be the smartest of crimes. While most of the stolen money is never recovered, the robberies often yield only a few thousand dollars, and most would-be Bonnie and Clydes get caught and are often sentenced to tough prison terms.
"It's a loser crime," said Robert McCrie, a professor of security management at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, who has studied bank robbery for more than 30 years. "So little money and so much that one gives up afterward: two, three, four years of freedom. And that's just with a note."
So far this year, the average robbery cost banks about $10,000, according to the FBI. But in many cases, such as the increasingly common note-passer robberies, the take can be closer to $1,000, authorities say.
"The bank takeovers — the vaulters that go over counter, the serial robbers — know to ask for more," said Larry Sparks, chief of the FBI violent crimes unit.
Unlike the popular image of Bonnie and Clyde — the notorious outlaws of the 1930s — today's bank robberies are usually relatively inconspicuous crimes of impulse and opportunity, often committed by people with drug or alcohol problems, that may not even be noticed by many people at the bank, experts say.
"If you look at the numbers, it's people with addiction problems who have fallen off the financial bandwagon," said Brad Garrett, an ABC News consultant and former FBI agent, who, by his own estimate, has handled hundreds of bank robbery cases. "They usually don't net much money."
Robbers are often able to get out of the bank, and most of the stolen money is never recovered — it is quickly spent.
But there's still a high risk of getting caught.
Bank robbery has among the highest arrest rate of any crime in the country — 59 percent of bank robberies were solved last year, said Sparks. To compare, about a quarter of the total number of robbery cases nationwide were closed in 2005, and only 12 percent of burglary cases were closed that year.
On the Rise
Still, bank robberies continue to be a problem for police. Last year, there were 6,985 robberies of banks, credit unions and armored cars in the country, according to the FBI — an increase of about 3 percent from 2005, but still fewer than several years ago. Sparks said he expects the numbers to go up again this year.
Though they get a lot of media attention, bank heists are only a small fraction of the total robberies in the country. The recent rise, McCrie said, is probably due to so-called "note passers" — people who unobtrusively hand a teller a note asking for money.
There have been a string of recent robberies by inconspicuous criminals whose weapon of choice is a piece of paper. The FBI in New Jersey recently arrested a middle-aged man they call the "mad hatter" bandit, who's suspected in at least 18 bank robberies and who always wore a hat.
The FBI continues to hunt for a blond-haired woman in her 20s who favors a low-slung baseball hat as her holdup outfit, and is believed to be responsible for at least three bank robberies in Arizona, California and Washington state.
A pair of young Georgia women made national headlines in February when they appeared on a surveillance tape, giggling as they robbed a Bank of America location, making off with $11,000.
Most robberies avoid violence. Acts of violence were committed in about 5 percent of bank robberies last year. The person most likely to be killed is the robber.
Note Passers Not a Threat
"The note passers don't really represent a threat," said McCrie. "Just give them a little bit of money and they'll leave."
Robberies appear easy to get away with. Bank tellers are usually told to cooperate with robbers. Many banks — more customer-friendly than they used to be — don't have armed guards or barriers separating tellers from customers.
"We just want to get the bank robber out of the building as soon as possible," said Margot Mohsberg, a spokeswoman for the American Bankers Association.
As a result, the holdups are often successful — for a time. Most bank robbers are caught after several successes, Garrett said.
"Usually, they're elated at getting money so easily," McCrie said. "Typically, they don't do just one job."
Nearly every bank has surveillance cameras, silent alarms, marked bills and exploding dye packs. Mohsberg said some banks invest in facial-recognition software.
A single count of armed bank robbery carries a minimum of seven years in prison, and can bring up to a 25-year sentence.
"A lot of them don't think they're going to get caught," said Sparks. "People still do rob banks, because that's where the money's at."