New Defense Fights Bank Robbery

FBI Lists Tips for Better Branch Security and Staff Protection

Old-fashioned bank robberies continue to plague financial institutions.

While the monetary loss isn't great, at least relative to other schemes banks and credit unions face these days, the psychological impact is immeasurable.

Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Erik Vasys, who works for the Bureau's San Antonio division, says his local FBI division has spearheaded an initiative called Bandit Shield. The initiative aims not only to deter robberies but to help banking institutions better cope with the aftermath when a robbery does occur.

"What this program is trying to do is educate financial institutions on the best practices of doing two things, repelling bank robberies and making sure they never happen at all," Vasys says in an interview with BankInfoSecurity's Tracy Kitten (transcript below).

The FBI's best practices have been developed from information collected during bank robbery investigations, and include insights from bank security officers, FBI agents and the bank robbers themselves.

"These best practices are a collection of techniques," Vasys says.

The program is only available in Texas now, but plans are underway to expand the initiative to other U.S. cities.

During this interview, Agent Vasys discusses:

  • How FBI agents use information provided by convicted robbers to consistently update their list of best practices;
  • Why losses linked to physical branch robberies go beyond money; and
  • How the Bandit Shield initiative will improve communications and collaboration between banking institutions and law enforcement.

Vasys is a 22 year veteran of the FBI who was assigned to violent crime and drug investigations for the first 16 years of his career, when he held posts in New Orleans and San Antonio. Since 2006, Vasys has worked as the media coordinator for the San Antonio Division of the Bureau.

Bandit Shield

TRACY KITTEN: The Federal Bureau of Investigation launched the Bandit Shield initiative on January 30. What can you tell us about the initiative as well as its goals?

ERIK VASYS: The FBI initially launched the Bandit Shield program in a regional area of Texas. Texas is divided four ways. San Antonio division has the lower southwest corner of Texas and we initiated the program here, but it's been in development for probably two years with one of our local bank robbery investigators. What this program is trying to do is educate banks, financial institutions, credit unions and their employees on the best practices of doing two things - repelling bank robberies and making sure they never happen at all; or, the second factor if they do happen - that apprehension is very quick soon after the robbery. It's a two-prong program from around the United States of all the banks and financial institutions out there and we brought together a very common sense program to teach employees what to do about deterring bank robberies.

KITTEN: Bandit Shield, as you've noted, is a regional initiative. Are there plans to roll this out nationally?

VASYS: Yes. We started announcing this in January and we have been getting calls from a variety of locations around the United States wanting this training, because it is free from the FBI and local police. We put it on for free. Now these best practices are a collection of techniques, employee procedures and are also some technical requests that we have for banks to update certain things, and most of this is absolutely cost-free, but there are a few things that we ask the banks to update, which does cost a little bit of money. Again, these practices are learned actually from bank robbers.

Every time we arrest a robber, we learn from them what works and what doesn't work for banks and we ask them, "Why did you hit this particular bank and why did you hit another bank?" And the bank robbers talk. In prison, they talk about how they got caught and what they're going to do different next time. So we learn from them and we also learn from bank security officers as well.

Evolution of Bank Robberies

KITTEN: When it comes to physical bank robberies, we don't often talk about how they happen or how prevalent they are quite so much in the industry these days. Relative to other types of financial crimes, how concerning are bank robberies and how have bank robberies evolved or changed in recent years, if at all?

VASYS: The FBI has been involved in investigating bank robberies since the gangster era of the 1930s. It's an old world crime. It really has not changed. The basics of the crime have not changed. It's very simple. Bad guys know the banks have money. Bad guy wants the money. What we do is we want to fight smarter with institutions to make sure it's harder for a robber to conduct what he's doing. It's really a dumb idea to rob a bank, because everyone knows that the security features are in place. Some security features are better than others, and really it's the training of the personnel that really helps deter bank robberies.

So as far as how do bank robberies compare to other crimes, now if you put on a financial comparison, white collar fraud is enormous. It hurts our country. It's actually considered a national security threat in some ways, because of how financial fraud can undermine our institutions. But the day-to-day hands-on bad guy robbery of the bank is of concern also, because it definitely is a violent crime. It affects the community where it occurs and it definitely affects the safety and the day-to-day activities of the membership and the customers that are in that bank when it gets robbed. If you compare white collar fraud which effects the entire country at a high, high dollar amount, bank robberies - the average take in a robbery is anywhere from a $1,000 to $2,000, but the sheer violent crime shock of that act on the customers and victims in that bank last a lifetime. Once an individual is successful in bank robberies, they continue on, and that's another part of this program we try to address. We have to stop that bank robber, because more than likely if they're successful in getting at their money that way, they're going to continue.

Risk Mitigation

KITTEN: I did want to ask about some of the challenges that financial institutions face when it comes to addressing some of these physical bank robberies. What do you see them doing to mitigate their risks and where could they improve?

VASYS: What you're asking is exactly what Bandit Shield is all about. Banks are required to have a certain level of security in place to ensure they keep FDIC insurance. Bank robberies take place in just about every community to varying degrees. Some areas of the country are known for a high, high volume of bank robbery. For example, Las Angeles area is considered the bank robbery capital of the world. They have anywhere from 1,500 to 2,000 robberies a year. That sounds crazy but it's true. San Antonio area - we maybe have 80 to 100 robberies a year. It fluctuates for a variety of reasons that criminologists could probably better comment on, but what we want banks to do is to have a set of procedures in place so they know what they're going to do and what is going to happen when a bank robbery occurs and that's what the thrust of Bandit Shield is all about.

We bring together in one training for the banks and credit unions the best practices that we've learned throughout the years from all bank robberies. There are some set procedures, some personnel procedures we want the banks to utilize. Again, this is coming straight from the bank robber's mouth most of these techniques. And there are also some updates in technology and other technical means within the bank that we want them to update as well. When all those things are in place, it's very tough for a bank robbery to be successful. So that's what we're looking to do with this program. It's free. All a bank would have to do is ask their local FBI. Now I regret that it's strictly in south Texas right now, but the interest that we're seeing in this program is nationwide, so we anticipate our headquarters will implement a program where we will get it out to all major cities.

FICO's Involvement

KITTEN: The FBI is working with FICO, and I assume some other organizations and agencies, to help tackle the bank robbery investigation issue and also to help spearhead better communication between law enforcement and the financial industry. Can you tell us exactly how the FBI is working with FICO?

VASYS: FICO, through its membership, is getting the word out to the financial institutions that this aspect of crime is something we can help train them on. Now FICO focuses primarily on the white collar fraud aspect of banking crimes. Again, through your network, your listeners and your membership, this is just another technique for the banks to know about, because the actual hands-on violent crime robbery of a bank is always there, and most banks don't get robbed. If they're robbed, it's maybe once or twice a year. We want to make that zero times a year and that's how - we're teaming up with FICO in getting the word out. So we appreciate that.

Best Practices

KITTEN: Now you've mentioned some of the best practices or security measures that financial institutions put in place to deter robberies and other types of crimes. In order to be part of Bandit Shield, banks and credit unions have to agree to implement a variety of best practices. Can you tell us what some of those best practices are?

VASYS: Well, I'm not at liberty to tell you any of the techniques except for one. What I will tell you is a common-sense technique. Everyone knows, whether you're a patron, whether you're an employee, customer or whether you're a bad guy robbing the bank, everyone knows that banks have cameras. Part of Bandit Shield training is we encourage the banks to update their cameras to the best technology possible. There's a new camera invented everyday with better resolution, better pixels - we need those high resolution photos to get the image of the bank robber out to the community. Your typical bank robber is from the community where he's robbing the bank. This isn't all the time, but typically that robber will stay in his home, his home town. He will rob in his home town.

Typically, most bank robbers will walk in without an elaborate disguise. There are elaborate disguises in bank robberies, but typically the robber will not have an elaborate disguise because that robber needs to blend back in with the public as soon as they leave the bank. So law enforcement is dependent on a good photograph to get out to the community because that's where the crime-solving takes place. The FBI and the local police, we do a certain part of it, but the other part of that relationship is the public. We need the public's help in solving that robbery and the best way we do that is getting an accurate high-resolution photo to the community, and that bank robber typically is identified very quickly. That's one technique I can tell you about Bandit Shield, one of the things that we encourage on the technical side of the training that banks update their cameras.

How to Get Involved

KITTEN: Before we wrap up, what recommendations could you offer to institutions, whether they're national or located in San Antonio, that are interested in helping to improve security and perhaps get involved with the program?

VASYS: I want to emphasize that Bandit Shield is not required by anybody. This is strictly a set of best practices that have come about from bank security officers, FBI agents, local police and sheriff's investigators, and the bank robbers themselves. This has been put together by a talented group of detectives and FBI agents here in the San Antonio office, and they're best practices. There's no doubt that these techniques when put together will do one of two things. It's going to either deter the bank robbery completely or it's going to help us catch the bank robber that much quicker because of these techniques and practices.

But again, I want to emphasize this is not required by anybody. This is free training put on by law enforcement for banks and when you comply with the majority of these best practices, and the bank security officer advises a local FBI agent who does the training that the bank is 75 to 85 percent compliant with these list of things that you've asked, we do something very simple. We put a sticker on the front door of that bank to say, "This bank is Bandit Shield compliant." Remember, the FBI doesn't go in and do an audit. We don't go in and mandate anyone do this. This is a voluntary program that's for free from law enforcement to banking institutions. If a bank doesn't want to use Bandit Shield, there's no requirement for it. What we ask them to do is to update their procedures to the best of their ability.

Some banks haven't updated their robbery procedures in quite a while because they haven't been hit by a bank robbery. And when you're hit by a bank robbery, it's a little too late because remember the entire community is in danger by that robber remaining successful and remaining uncaught in the community. So it's in everyone's interest to help law enforcement catch that guy, and sometimes it's a girl.

Call your local FBI and ask for Bandit Shield training if it's available in your area. Hopefully it will be available everywhere at some point. Again, sorry it's only available regionally in south Texas right now, but we're doing our best to get it out nationally.

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