Thinking About Robbing a Bank? Read This First

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Portrait of American bank robbers and lovers Clyde Barrow (1909 - 1934) and Bonnie Parker (1911 -1934), popularly known as Bonnie and Clyde, circa 1933.

It would seem like easy money. You walk into a bank, hand a threatening note to a teller, gesture at the gun in your pocket (real or squirt), then walk out moments later with a big sack of cash. Oh, sure, you might have to spend some time later scrubbing the dye from one of those pesky exploding dye packs out of your getaway car’s upholstery, but it sure beats honest work, doesn’t it?

Not so fast. If you spend your afternoons at work daydreaming about bank robbery, a small gang of British economists has bad news for you. After doing an extensive cost-benefit analysis of bank robbery using confidential data from the British Bankers’ Association, the three conclude that “[t]he return on an average bank robbery is, frankly, rubbish.”

In a paper just published in Significance, the magazine of the Royal Statistical Society and the American Statistical Association, Neil Rickman of the University of Surrey and two colleagues from the University of Sussex break down the numbers. The typical haul for a UK bank robbery during 2005-08, the years their data covered, was a mere $31,700, with a third of the robberies yielding nothing at all. (Curses, foiled again!) Bank robbers are more likely than not to work with a partner or two, bringing the typical haul per robber down to $19,800.

Still, that’s not … all that bad, right? Nearly $20 grand for a few minutes of work? Well, that’s assuming you don’t get caught, a non-negligible risk.

As the authors note:

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. Given that the average UK wage for those in full-time employment is around £26,000 [roughly $40,000], it will give him a modest lifestyle for no more than 6 months. If he decides to make a career of it, and robs two banks a year to make a sub-average income, his chances of eventually getting caught will increase … after four raids he is more likely than not to be inside. As a profitable occupation, bank robbery leaves a lot to be desired.

In the U.S., the math is even worse, at least from the point of view of those doing the robbing. According to the FBI, the typical haul for a bank robber in the U.S. in 2009 was only a little over $4,000. Still, if you don’t mind the security guards, the alarms, the cameras and the exploding dye packs, this is a big haul when compared to other kinds of robbery. The average take for all robberies was a mere $1,200, according to the FBI. The lowest on the totem pole?  Convenience store robbers, who on average managed to grab only $700 per heist (plus all the withered, overcooked hot dogs they could carry).

It’s enough to make the aspiring bank robber wonder if he or she should get into drug dealing instead. Don’t even think about it: Research by sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh, who ingratiated himself into a position where he could observe the financial workings of a Chicago gang as a grad student in the early 90s, found that only those on the top of the gang hierarchy actually made anything approaching a decent income from selling drugs. The typical street corner drug dealer made an average of $3.30 an hour for a job that involved dealing with crackheads on a regular basis and left them at considerable risk of being attacked and even killed. Over the course of 4 years, Venkatesh discovered, low-level drug dealers were arrested roughly 6 times on average and had a one in four chance of being killed. Most of them worked minimum-wage “straight” jobs to supplement their drug-dealing income.

If all this isn’t enough to dissuade you from a life of crime, I suggest you cue up Dog Day Afternoon on Netflix instant. SPOILER ALERT: The dog day in question does not go well for Al Pacino’s character Sonny.