SafeCatch: How to Deter Bank Robberies

Interview with FBI Special Agent Larry Carr
SafeCatch: How to Deter Bank Robberies
"Don't be a hero."

For years, this is how banking institutions have responded to robberies - with an attitude of compliance.

But in Seattle, the local division of the FBI has turned this attitude on its heels with SafeCatch, a program designed to train bank employees to spot and deter potential robberies before they even occur.

In an exclusive interview about SafeCatch, FBI Special Agent Larry Carr discusses:

The SafeCatch approach to deterring robberies;
How effective SafeCatch has been in Seattle;
Simple steps banking institutions can take to help prevent robberies.

Carr is the bank robbery coordinator within the FBI's Seattle office. He is credited with creating the SafeCatch program.

Since 2006, Carr has provided SafeCatch training to some 40 Washington State financial institutions roughly 400 bank branches and 3,000 employees. Last year, Seattle saw a 51 percent decrease in the number of bank robberies from its decade average between 1996 and 2006 of approximately 300 robberies annually.

TOM FIELD: Hi, this is Tom Field, Editorial Director with Information Security Media Group. We're talking today about the SafeCatch program to stop bank robberies, and we're talking with the man behind it, Larry Carr, Special Agent with the Seattle Office of the FBI. Larry, thanks so much for joining me today.


FIELD: So Larry, tell us about the Safe Catch program and how it originated?

CARR: Yeah, you know the way it originated was first asking a question of ourselves in the FBI. What constitutes a successful criminal investigation? And if you look at what the traditional response is, it's going to be identifying, arrest, and successfully prosecute the criminal. Unfortunately when we apply that standard to bank robbery investigation, because bank robbery is a serial crime, that definition is wholly inadequate.

So we change the definition to identify and arrest the criminal before he can strike again, and then we have a totally different dynamic at play here because left to their own device we will apprehend the bank robber through the investigative process. Well now you are looking at five, 10 or 15 robberies. But if we change that dynamic to arrest before he can strike again, now we have a dilemma, because for us to successfully do that we rely on a partnership with the banking industry, and not just a partnership, but a strategic partnership. If we do that, then we have to go out to the industry and tell them exactly what we need. You know, they are the ones that build this foundation of our investigation. If it is a weak foundation, if it's cracked, then there is no potential for us to be successful, and so that is how the SafeCatch idea developed.

FIELD: Now Larry, I'm familiar with SafeCatch, but maybe briefly you could describe it for our audience here that might not know the details of the program and what you do.

CARR: Absolutely. The SafeCatch program is a two-pronged approach to suppressing bank robbery. You know the goal is to suppress this robbery, or stop this robbery, and stop this robber's future robberies. And then the overall concept is: Every bank robbery is every bank's problem. And what the SafeCatch program does is its two-pronged, Safe and Catch, and each letter stands for an action. The Safe aspect of it is a preventive part. When we did our research looking into how employees could become proactive and safely proactive in preventing their own victimization, what we found and believe is that 93% of all bank robberies can be prevented. That is because the bank robber comes in posing as a customer, doesn't reveal his intent until he reaches a trigger point within the institution.

These trigger points we've identified can be eliminated with these strategies that we developed. Once we eliminate the trigger points, what we found was is that these suspicious customers would leave the branch without assuming the role of the bank robber. And then the other aspect of it, the Catch phase, what was discovered through our research is that if the bank employees implement their post robbery procedures as they are a standard today, they almost insure the robber's escape for a large number of reasons. So we went in and retooled that post-robbery procedure so that we had a shot at a police response catcher, and if we missed the police response catcher, then employees by using these techniques help us develop that foundation so that we capture the bank robber before he can strike again.

FIELD: Now this all makes sense, but how is it different from bank's traditional approach to robberies?

CARR: Well, you know if you look at what the industry standard is, maybe your listeners have heard these words: "Don't be the hero. It's not your money. Don't do anything; it's not worth it." When we take that compliant victim mentality and overlay that into the safe part of SafeCatch, what we find is you have a bank employee with their head down all day long because there is nothing they can do about it.

You know bank employees have so much that they are responsible for, selling products, maintaining the balance on their drawer; customer service, that when we tell them you are not responsible for anything as far as your own safety, there is nothing you can do about it. Well we as human beings instinctively do nothing about it. But what we found is if we can get people to pay attention, if we can get people to understand that they are in control of the security of their environment, that there are safe things that they can do to prevent that. So if you look at what the old standard, don't do anything, don't be the hero, compared to what the new standard is, "be a hero; it's worth it." In the end, we are either going to prevent it, comply with it, or develop a new customer. There's nothing wrong with that.

And so, I think that and the other aspect of it, when we were doing the research for this program and we trained bank employees especially in the safe part and in to a degree in the catch part, when they feel they have control of their safety over their environment they are a much happier employee, a much more vibrant employee able to use customer service beyond what they were before and they feel a confidence that even if I a robbed then I'm not an unwilling participant just bouncing along and have no control over my destiny. That's very uneasy for human beings to deal with every day. So now, when they are in control, when they are empowered, and they have safe tools that they can use, now they are in control of their environment. It is a much more different dynamic day to day.

FIELD: So Larry, this is a huge attitude change for the banks. How did you convince them to take a chance on SafeCatch?

CARR: Well you know, it wasn't easy at first, and I still deal with it day to day. You know trying to get them to understand that was the biggest part. Is we're not advocating bank employees to take direct action, aggressive action. We don't' want cowboys. All that training that the security managers have come under for all the years that they've been in, it's -- ,when you come in and say hey there's more that you can do, they step back real quick. "Oh my God, what are you talking about here." And so the problem was getting them to sit down and listen for a little bit and read the materials, so they fully understand that this isn't what this program is about and I still fight that today to some degree.

So, it has been a bit of a challenge. but the way we overcome it is, once they sit down and once they understand the program, and here's the key, once their employees understand and embrace the program it's such a far different environment for them that they can not, not use the program. And I have never had someone, even the biggest doubters, come into a presentation and we go over all these aspects and those adjustments, you know those mental attitude adjustments, and walk away saying "no, I don't want to do it." Every person to date and it's in the thousands of now, have said we want to do this and we want to do it today.

FIELD: So you talked about this empowers bank employees, what is really required of them to be effective in SafeCatch?

CARR: Well you know you kind of hit the nail on the head. It is really that attitude adjustment. You know what is it about and this was on of the keys in developing the program, going in and interviewing bank robbers, and so I kind of let them role with that investigative aspect. And when their done in the interview with, okay on this date what did you do and what did you do with the money, and what does your demand note state then I step in and I say, "hey, let me ask you a question.

In your bank robbery spree, did you ever go into a financial institution and not rob it?" Inevitably, we found that for every bank robber that robs in a day, two or three banks that day were not robbed and it comes down to a feeling. You know, when I went into the bank it just didn't feel right, and then I really tried to get in there and understand, well, what caused that feeling, and it is that attitude that you kind of brought up. It's that chest a little higher head -up aware of what is going on, and when you combine that attitude with the tools that we give employees it's a great dynamic and it stops bank robbers in their tracks.

FIELD: Well talk about that, Larry. How effective has SafeCatch been since you developed the program?

CARR: Well you know we've had for the past two years, now the Seattle division perennially is one of the most robberies in the United States. In fact, from 1996 to 2006 we've averaged about 300 bank robberies a year. We had this big task force, and we still have a vibrant task force, and we're going out and doing that law enforcement capacity, but of course what we discovered in our research, the missing component was always the bank employee. We didn't have that solid investigative foundation that got the guy on robbery number one, either through a police response or through an apprehension before he could strike again.

Well when we fully got this thing up and running over the course of the last four or five years, 2007 being our big roll out. 2007 we had 176 robberies that year. In 2008 we had 153 robberies that year. So you can see the reduction. And what we can look back and ideally say is in 2008 the highest number anyone got was five. And in 2006, we had one individual that had 27 and several that had 10, 15 or more. And so you see, you have a small population responsible for the totality of the problem, and that is why it is so important to start targeting these serial bandits, and it's so important for law enforcement to come back and say wait a minute, a successful investigation isn't a high solution rate, a successful investigation is one robber one robbery.

FIELD: So even with institutions that have rolled out SafeCatch, where do you find that the banks continue to find challenges in trying to deter robbers?

CARR: You know what the biggest challenge is> Overcoming 40 years of this is the way we've always done it. The banking industry is a huge ship with a small rudder I have found, not unlike most big organizations. And you know one of the things is it doesn't cost anything. But it is getting over the hurdle. How do you wipe away that industry foundation of "don't be the hero, it's not worth it, don't do anything?" How do you get beyond that? And once we do and move into the discussion that we just had, things change rapidly, but it is getting past that hurdle to have that discussion that has biggest the problem.

FIELD: You had one teller locally that got past that hurdle in a big way recently.

CARR: Well, and that is one of the things, some individuals like security managers that have concerns over the program, and those are dwindling thankfully, used that and said 'Hey here's a great example of a guy who took SafeCatch to the extreme,' and I kind of backed off. I said wait a minute. Number one that institution where the bank teller went out and chased the robber down the street, well, they don't train the program, and that guy the teller had never even heard of the program. And of course, in the very end what that teller did is not even part of the program. So you know again, it's that perception of what it is and what it isn't that we have to dust off and we have to say wait a minute, this has nothing to do with the SafeCatch program or what we want bank employees to do.

FIELD: Now what I understand of the program is it relies on the tellers that are looking for visual cues and what people are doing, and how they are behaving. It struck me that at a time when the insider threat is particularly high, perhaps some of these principles could apply to insider crime is that so?

CARR: Well you know I think it would, and we've been encouraged to develop a SafeCatch program targeting fraud. You know a big part of the foundation, and I'll give a plug to this, Gavin de Becker, a security consultant down in Las Angeles, and he wrote a book that's been on Oprah and it's been out for quite a while. It's called "The Gift of Fear," and I love that concept that we innately aware of things that are wrong, but yet because of the way we're socialized or because, especially in the banking industry, the way we are brought into the industry to treat customers and never offend the customers, and you know we don't accept the gift of fear for these reasons. So in the SafeCatch program, we overcome obstacles so that employees do feel comfortable in accepting Gavin de Becker's "Gift of Fear" and taking action on. Because when we look, when I interviewed tellers they all knew that they were going to get victimized. Sometimes it was just five seconds before, but many time, many, many times it was minutes up to five minutes or more that they recognized that wait a minute, I think this guy may be here to rob us.

Now of course they are posing as a customer. They are not a bank robber at that point in time, but I think that to your point that also can apply to fraud and even internal fraud. If someone is doing something wrong, we all get that kind of funny feeling, hey I think, you know I think Joe from accounts is acting weird lately. Do we do anything with that or do we accept it and take appropriate action based on that. So, I think that there is overlay.

In fact I can tell you this: Security managers have reported back to me in a link that their fraud rates, once they have adopted a SafeCatch program, have dropped dramatically because employees are kind of thinking outside of the box. You know, every teller that takes a bad check kind of knew, 'Wait a minute, I've gone through all the checks that I'm required to go through; something is not right about this.' Two weeks later when the check comes back and it's a fraud, they go I knew it. Well if you knew it, why didn't you take some other action? So now they see that their employees are taking those little actions of maybe interviewing the potential customer that is passing a fraud check in a different manner.

Making them spell their name regardless of how easy or the name could be spelled, whether they have the driver's license in front of them or not. You know having them repeat their social security number a couple times. If they are giving a false number, maybe they remembered it once but when you ask it again they can't say it again. Or here's one I really like, they ask how old they are. They don't just write down the date of birth, they ask how old are you? And once the person has declared how old they are then they ask the date of birth and do the math real quick and they find that the numbers don't mix. So it's that outside of the box thinking that goes beyond the normal checks that stops that fraud, and that is definitely in the realm of what we came up with Safe Catch.

FIELD: Now Larry has SafeCatch been piloted outside of Seattle yet?

CARR: You know I get inquiries every week, multiple inquiries about wanting to start the Safe Catch program in an area. In fact, I just got a call from Buffalo that you know I'm going to call them after this to deliver that. You know and the FBI just did a feature piece on our website, which generated a lot of interest, so yes it's gone way beyond the state of Washington.

FIELD: So for institutions that haven't benefited from the program yet, what advice could you give them to help them to do a better job stopping robberies before they occur?

CARR: There are two things that financial institutions can do outside of SafeCatch, but these are part of the principles of SafeCatch that they could do and robberies would plummet. Number one, lower their cameras. The problem with surveillance cameras is they are so high up that typically all we have is a shot of the top of baseball cap. If they would just lower their cameras to about five feet to six feet, we're going to get under that ball cap and then we get that image of investigative quality out on the news and then the next day we get him identified and arrested before he can strike again.

And a lot of institutions say, well, we can't lower all of our cameras because of this or that, that's great because you only need one camera positioned properly and you have the shot, and that is going to be your exit camera. Exit cameras are always at the top of the door shooting straight down at the person entering or exiting the bank. What we found if you can lower just the exit camera that is the only camera that you have to worry about. We get a shot ever time, because the bank robber whether he's wearing a hoody, a hat, when they come into the bank they have their chin down into their chest because they know where your cameras are placed. Once they've done their robbery, their mind is not inside the bank anymore; it's on their escape; it's outside of the bank they are not thinking about it. So we found that when these individuals exit, they have their head up. So whether they have a hat, a hoody, or combination, if the camera is at that five foot level to six foot level you get that face shot every time. And you know interestingly enough, even if they are wearing a ski mask, they don't want to walk out of the parking lot with a ski mask on. So they put it on their head like it's a knit cap, and as they start to come into the doors they pull it down. When they go to leave, before they ever exit the bank they are pulling that cap up as they exit, then boom we have them with that exit camera.

The other aspect is if we can get bank employees to stop relying on their alarms as a mean of notification to law enforcement. This is one of the biggest things that stop the police response apprehension. And if you look at a police response apprehension, it's an exponential equalizer in the fight on bank robbery. That is truly where you get the robber on robbery number one, but when we use our alarms as a means of notification to law enforcement, the delays by putting a third uninvolved third party in an emergency response situation creates delays of five minutes or more before the police are ever notified thereby there is absolutely no chance of a police response apprehension and we loose that exponential equalizer.

And so lowering the cameras and having the victim teller, and it has to be the victim teller, making that call as soon as the guy leaves without seeking permission or getting in conversation. If banks would just do that, bank robbery rates would drop, by our numbers of calculations, thirty percent nation wide.

FIELD: Boy that's something. Larry, I sure appreciate your time and your insight today.

CARR: You bet.

FIELD: We've been talking with Larry Carr, of the Seattle office of the FBI. For Information Security Media Group, I'm Tom Field. Thank you very much.

About the Author

Tom Field

Tom Field

Senior Vice President, Editorial, ISMG

Field is responsible for all of ISMG's 28 global media properties and its team of journalists. He also helped to develop and lead ISMG's award-winning summit series that has brought together security practitioners and industry influencers from around the world, as well as ISMG's series of exclusive executive roundtables.

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