A quintessentially American crime on the decline – robbing banks doesn’t pay as it used to

Security camera footage captures a man wearing a Santa-style beard as he fired shots and robbed a PNC bank in Laurel, Md., on Dec. 21, 2013. Laurel Police Department.

Clay Tumey visited his Texas bank to make a withdrawal, but he left with a discovery that convinced him of one thing: He could rob banks and probably get away with it.

The flash came a decade ago after he glimpsed blurry photos of himself captured by the branch’s surveillance system. He figured no stranger would be able to identify him from such poor images.

Tumey was no criminal at that time, but the insight started him on a path to carrying out a string of bank robberies. Yet, asked whether he would commit the same crimes today, Tumey was unequivocal. In short, he said the crime no longer pays.

“Social media scares the hell out of me,” Tumey said. “I just don’t want to have a security camera shot of my face all over social media. It’s too easy to get caught. There’s a lot of easier ways to make the same amount of money.”

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Bank robbery may be the quintessential American crime, immortalized in screaming headlines and Hollywood movies, but it is fading like those grainy old newsreels of Bonnie and Clyde and John Dillinger.

Bank heists have fallen about as fast as any other crime, dropping almost 60 percent in the past quarter century, according to FBI statistics. And robbers are getting away with less and less loot.

FBI numbers show the average take has dwindled by nearly half over the past 10 years to just $6,500. That’s more like trading in a used Jetta than scoring a payday that might fund an extended stay on a tropical island.

When you factor in the FBI’s calculation that bank robbers are caught in greater numbers than any other criminals except killers, experts say smart thieves are coming to the conclusion that the risks now outweigh the rewards.

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Gone are the days when bank robbers were the aristocrats of the underworld, when many became household names, and some were even celebrated in song as Robin Hood-like folk heroes for bold and daring heists.

“Bank robbery is now largely a crime of the desperate,” said Gerald Clark, a former FBI agent and now an assistant professor of criminal justice at Gannon University in Erie, Pa. Today’s bank robber is “the person who needs money now or the drug user looking to get that instant high,” he said.

The story of the decline of a crime that has gripped the public imagination like no other mirrors Tumey’s own career as a robber – a brash beginning, a pivotal moment and an ignominious end.

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Tumey’s life was unraveling.

The year was 2005. He was depressed. His marriage was failing. And he was angry with his family for opposing his dreams of becoming a professional poker player, so he lashed out.

Tumey decided to withdraw a $26,000 certificate of deposit that was in his and his mother’s names without telling his parents. When they noticed it was gone, Tumey hinted to them that someone had stolen his identity and withdrawn the money.

That ruse quickly collapsed when the bank pulled up surveillance images of the withdrawals. Although his parents recognized him in the grainy photos, he was convinced that few others would have picked him out.

The observation would tug at the back of his mind for months.

Tumey was hardly the first to discover holes in bank security. For many years, experts said the banking industry had a secret: Despite billions of dollars sitting in vaults, security was often not as good as it might be.

Experts said there was a simple reason: cost.

Many banks calculated that it was cheaper to absorb the losses from a few heists every year than to outfit tens, hundreds or even thousands of branches with costly security measures, said Bill Rehder, a retired FBI agent who worked on bank robberies for three decades when he was with the agency.

But that calculation began to change in the mid-1990s, Rehder said. The nation was in the grips of the largest surge in bank robberies in decades, and Los Angeles, where Rehder worked, was ground zero. Rehder recalled that on one day alone, the metropolitan area had 28 bank robberies. Some were violent.

Spooked employees were leaving banks, and customers injured in heists were suing, Rehder said. Suddenly, robberies were costing banks much more. Rehder said the FBI and bank officials in the Los Angeles area met and determined that something had to be done.

“The banks put millions of dollars into security at their local branches,” Rehder said. “This spread across the country and became the industry standard.”

The measures include the bulletproof “bandit barriers” for tellers that are common today, metal detectors at entrances and even “mantraps,” vestibules that can trap robbers until the police arrive. Experts said the security devices helped thwart robberies and limited the thieves’ hauls.

Tumey would begin his life of crime as this new era was taking hold.

After the CD debacle, Tumey said he became obsessed with the idea of robbing banks. As a modern, aspiring criminal, he turned to Google, researching for months how bank robberies had failed.

One afternoon in April 2006, he was finally ready.

Tumey said he nodded at the receptionist as he walked into a Chase Bank outside of Dallas and got in line like any other customer. When it was his turn, he exchanged pleasantries with the teller and handed her an envelope.

On it, he had scrawled: “Put all $50s and $100s in this envelope.”

Tumey said he saw one of the teller’s hands move slightly to hit a panic button, before she passed him an envelope filled with nearly $3,000 in cash. Tumey was worried, but said his research told him he would likely be gone before anyone showed up.

Tumey walked calmly out of the bank, telling the same receptionist he saw on the way in to have a great day.

“I had a 30-minute window when I was paranoid,” Tumey said. “I was looking for a news helicopter in the sky. I turned on local news. It wasn’t even on the local news. Once I realized it was that easy to do. It was a big rush.”

Tumey said he replaced a friend’s stolen car stereo and paid another’s bills with the cash. After a week or two, the money was gone. He would soon hit another bank, he said, trying to fill the void in his life with that rush.

Law enforcement did not catch Tumey, but its ability to catch the crooks was becoming better on a number of fronts, said Stephen Richardson, assistant director of the Criminal Investigative Division of the FBI, in a statement.

“Law enforcement deterrents include the investigative use of technology and advancement in forensic science to successfully arrest and prosecute bank robbers, as well as the strong partnerships formed with local police departments,” the statement read. “This recipe has proven valuable in the combined efforts to thwart bank robberies.”

Ever-sharper images from improved security cameras have made it possible for law enforcement to put out better photos of perpetrators, and social media has given them greater reach to put those images in front of the public. Last month, the FBI released an app that allows users to scroll through photos and information about wanted bank robbers across the nation.

Experts said old-fashioned bank robbery is also declining because thieves are finding more-profitable and less-risky ventures. Some are targeting ATMs, and others are turning to cybercrimes, committing virtual heists from the comfort of their basements.

A 2015 IBM report listed the financial-services industry as the third most-targeted for cybercrime. The Internet security company Kaspersky Lab reported last year that a single hacker collective was able to steal about $1 billion from dozens of banks around the world, even ordering ATMs to spit out cash at set times to be collected by mules employed by the gang.

That one attack easily dwarfed the $26.3 million the FBI says was taken during the more-than 4,000 bank robberies in the United States in 2015. The proceeds from bank robbery are now so low that British economists calculated that the average robber is earning little more than the minimum wage.

“The return on an average bank robbery is, frankly, rubbish,” authors Barry Reilly, Neil Rickman and Robert Witt wrote in their study. “A single bank raid, even a successful one, is not going to keep our would-be robber in a life of luxury. It is not going to keep him long in a life of any kind.”

Tumey was thinking something similar around the time of his final robberies at the end of 2006. He just managed to escape one bank before employees locked the doors in an effort to trap him. Then he narrowly missed an officer who happened to be conducting a traffic stop nearby. The rush was gone.

Months after his last heist, Tumey turned himself in to authorities. He said he had just had a son and didn’t want the threat of going to jail hanging over his head as his son aged.

Tumey pleaded guilty to three heists in federal court and served about three years in prison.

Robbing banks may no longer be as profitable, but Tumey has now found a new angle: Lecturing about robbing banks. He speaks to audiences about how he turned his life around, and he wrote a book. He said he regrets his crimes and wants others to learn from his mistakes.

“I strongly discourage anyone from robbing a bank,” Tumey said. “If you want a thrill, go sky diving.”