Bank heists put focus on problem

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Before even reaching the halfway mark of 2005, Lawrence County has had four bank robberies, more than in any of the five previous years.

Just as troubling are repeat robberies of banks, including one South Point bank robbed twice in a little over two months.

Whether your bank has been hit or not, an increase in bank robberies is a bad sign for everyone, possibly signaling an increase in drug use and a serious economic depression, officials say.

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When a bank is robbed, it may mean more than one person wanting quick cash. It could mean big problems for the county.

Why a rise?

Michael Brooks, Federal Bureau of Investigations special agent and spokesperson for the Cincinnati division, wasn't sure why Ironton was experiencing such a rash of bank robberies, but he was able to supply a few general reasons why these spikes occur.

Number one on the list is economic depression, which can often cause a rise in opportunistic crime like bank robberies.

A rise in bank robberies often mean a rise in drug use as addicts tend to require the quick cash infusions supplied by a heist, he said.

Lawrence County Sheriff Tim Sexton explained a little.

"Many people are looking for quick, easy money," Sexton said. "I've never known, in this area, a person to continually do it as a way to fund their lifestyle. Often a person has some kind of addiction."

Another factor is experience. By and large, criminals tend to rob banks until they are caught.

"Generally, when we arrest an individual for robbing a bank, we can tie other bank robberies to that particular subject," Brooks said.

Somewhat less likely is the presence of a gang in the county that would be perpetrating all the robberies.

"On rare occasions, you have a gang come into an area and start hitting banks, and that would cause a rise in a relatively small area," Brooks said.

Repeat offenders

Of 2005's four robberies, two were at South Point's Lawrence Federal Savings Bank, now Oak Hill Financial, which was also robbed in April of 2001. The US Bank at the corner of Third and Jones streets in Ironton was robbed recently for the second time in two years.

Though it may seem counter-intuitive, Brooks said that there are a number of factors that can account for repeat robberies, including publicity.

"One bank is robbed, someone else sees that a bank has been robbed and then thinks, 'Well gee, I can do that.'" Brooks said.

As in business, three of the most important factors in bank robbery selection are location, location and location. Banks that are most often victimized have easy access to highway on-ramps.

Brooks speculated that Lawrence County is more vulnerable due to its close proximity to West Virginia and Kentucky, making escape that much easier.

Amy Perry, manager of that US Bank branch emphasizes that customers have nothing to fear when their bank is robbed.

"All of that money is FDIC insured," Perry said. "If a customer leaves their money with us it's guaranteed to be there. The bank is being robbed, not the customers."

Dave Gahm, senior risk management officer for Oak Hill Financial, worries that customers often don't fully understand that key point.

"I think a lot of times they don't," Gahm said. "Maybe in general they do, but sometimes you'll see a bank get robbed and a customer say, 'I was just in there prior to that, maybe they got my money.' But it's credited to the bank at that point, the customer's safe."

What can be done?

Though they may not be ripping off personal accounts, bank robberies are still an increasing problem in the area that can have serious consequences. The problem is that once someone decides to rob a bank, it's difficult to stop them.

"What banks are taught is not to confront the robber, you want to get the robber out and keep everybody safe," Gahm said.

Sheriff Sexton agrees, admitting that there's very little a bank can do - or should do - to stop a determined thief.

"A bank is a public building, it's got set hours, it's open and you cannot stop who comes and goes," Sexton said. "Now, if that person decides that they're going to enter a bank for the purpose of robbing it, do we place armed personnel in all banks? I don't think we do that."

What banks can do, Gahm said, is increase deterrents such as security cameras to force thieves to think twice before they attempt to knock over a bank.

Sexton also blames the upswing in robberies in dropping funds for sheriff's office manpower.

"You've got to have the ability to be proactive, and the sad thing about it is, for the most part, we are too many times reactive," Sexton said. "We want to be more proactive. Certainly if a person is getting ready to commit some sort of a crime and they see a sheriff's cruiser drive by, they're more likely to not commit that crime."

As the years progress, the solution to bank robberies may come from an unlikely source: Swiftly evolving technology.

"It's not banking's biggest threat anymore because of the use of debit and check cards and Internet banking, ATMs, banks are able to keep cash levels at a minimum in banks," Gahm said. "The potential for loss is not there, and the potential for gain is not necessarily there."

So in the end, it may be technology that foils the robber as bank robberies may finally be stopped only when there's no more cash left to steal.