Robberies Increase as Economy Weakens

On the same day New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly decried the city's significant jump in bank robberies, three Gotham banks were robbed.

When Are Banks Robbed Most Often? Read the Statistics

"[We've seen] a 100 percent increase in armed robberies and a 200 percent increase in robberies by note passers," said Kelly, whose city has been hit with 159 bank robberies between January and April 13 of this year — more than were reported in all of 1999 or 2000.

In the first three months of 2003, there were 1,679 bank robberies in the country, according to the FBI. That is down from a year ago. But for some big cities across the nation, the number of robberies have increased, from San Diego to Atlanta to Boston. The criminals are often amateurs and the average take is a few thousand dollars, but some of the incidents are eye-opening:

In Richmond, Va., one robbery took place while the bank's CEO was being photographed nearby. In York, Pa., a kindergarten teacher made off with $2,500 after passing the teller a note claiming he had a gun. He didn't.

Are Banks Partly to Blame?

Historically, hard economic times are tied to an uptick in bank heists, but there are measures banks can take to protect themselves, say experts.

Kelly believes a permissive attitude on the part of the banks is a factor. "They've made it much easier for people to come in, pass a note, and get money," he said. "I think this is just easy money."

With customers' convenience in mind, banks have opened more branches for longer hours, increasing their vulnerability to robbery. In Atlanta, for instance, where robberies are up 35 percent this year, banks in grocery stores have become a popular target.

Banks are no longer the fortresses of armed guards and bulletproof teller windows they used to be. The Plexiglas barriers, armed guards and digital surveillance that can help to deter robbers have been expensive to implement, and banks have been slow to invest in them, according to law enforcement experts.

"[The] kind of security measures you have at your institution will dictate whether or not you become a victim," said FBI Special Agent Daniel Bodony.

The banking industry says security doesn't have to be visible to be good. Silent alarms and surveillance cameras are nearly everywhere, according to Michael Smith, president of the New York Bankers Association.

"There may be a feeling there is no security there, but quite frankly, there is a lot of security there," he told ABCNEWS.

Armed Robberies Still Attempted — Not Thwarted

In Los Angeles, where heavy spending on security has reduced the number of nonviolent robberies, "takeover"-style cases involving weapons and hostages are on the rise. The "Whisper Bandit," so nicknamed because of his soft-spoken manner with tellers, showed a gun in his waistband as he robbed seven Southern California banks. After evading police in a high-speed chase last week, he shot himself on a busy interstate freeway.

Faced with grave statistics and embarrassing publicity, the banking industry has promised to do more to secure money and its employees.

Still, Bodony is unconvinced. "It's truly one of those crimes that's going to occur one way or the other," he said. "It just depends on what kind of violence they have to use to offset the actual prevention that's been put in place by the banks."