Crime Might Pay as Bank Robberies Increase

80 percent of cash taken in bank robberies is never recovered.

February 10, 2009, 10:31 PM

July 10, 2007 — -- Bank robbers hold up at least 23 banks somewhere in the United States every day.The number of bank robberies rose about 5 percent in 2006 -- 7,272 incidents in all.

From three gun-wielding young men robbing a bank in Illinois to a middle-aged man in Texas claiming to be a father who had been just laid off, bank robbery remains one of the most common and troubling crimes facing police.

The robbers are overwhelmingly men, often showing up in costumes, wearing masks or wigs, or even dressing in drag. Suspects in a Jackson, Miss., bank robbery posed as FBI agents to get inside the vault.

Watch more on this report from Pierre Thomas tonight on "World News with Charles Gibson."

But women, who make up 5 percent of bank robbery suspects, are getting more brazen -- far different from the days of Bonnie and Clyde, when they served mostly as lookouts.

According to the FBI, the current trend shows that women are much more likely to be robbing the banks themselves.

Recent cases illustrate that trend, such as the "cell phone bandit" who is serving time in a federal prison for robbing four Wachovia bank branches in the Washington, D.C., area while talking nonchalantly on her mobile phone the entire time.

There's also the "ponytail" robber, who is suspected of robbing banks in Texas, California and Washington, dressed in a zip-up sweatshirt and baseball cap, with a blond ponytail sprouting out the back.

But whether male or female, across the board, suspects are often robbing out of desperation.

"Out of the people we arrest, about 50 percent have a narcotics use habit," said Kenneth Kaiser, assistant director of the FBI's Criminal Investigative Division. "And the other ones may have an alcohol addiction, they may have a gambling addiction, or they may have other financial problems they're trying to resolve," Kaiser continued.

About half of bank thieves use weapons to commit their crimes, but Kaiser said the short-term financial gain is simply not worth the consequences -- up to 25 years for an armed robbery, plus the possible addition of up to five more years for a weapons charge. "You're talking a pretty significant amount of time you're going to serve in a penitentiary for a relatively low financial gain."

But the financial gain isn't always low. Half of the bank robbers don't get caught, and the overwhelming majority of the cash -- more than 80 percent of it -- disappears."They're spending it as soon they rob the bank," Kaiser explained.

Of $352 million stolen in bank robberies from 2002 to 2006, investigators recovered only $58 million.

Most bank robberies are surgically swift; over in minutes, largely because of little security. Many banks don't have armed guards or structures separating tellers from customers.

"It's not clear that the best security for banks is the most security," said Lawrence Sherman, director of the Jerry Lee Center of Criminology at the University of Pennsylvania. "When armed guards have been in some banks, there have been shootouts; innocent people have been hit in the crossfire."

"There's a real tension between a bank being a fortress, which is potentially a battle ground, on the one hand, and the way people want to do business where they can get up close and personal with the employees of the bank and have a feeling of a friendly environment," Sherman said. "You can't have it both ways."

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, many law enforcement officials said their focus has been on terrorism. But with crime surging in many communities, some police say it might be time to refocus on more traditional crime.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events