Bank Robbers Going the Way of Blacksmiths?

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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.

Perhaps there really is no such thing as easy money. Based on declining bank robbery statistics, criminals seem to be realizing that it’s hard to make a living by following in the footsteps of Bonnie and Clyde.

In 2009, there were no fewer than 22 bank robberies in a trio of counties centered on Augusta, Georgia. “It felt like we were the bank robbery capital of the world that year,” Capt. Troy Elwell, of the Aiken County Sheriff’s department, recently told the Augusta Chronicle.

Last year, however, there were “just” eight bank robberies reported in the same area. In fact, the paper noted, the number of bank robberies around the country has been falling steadily for years:

According to the FBI, bank holdups have dropped nearly every year since 2003, when nearly 7,500 robberies were reported nationwide with $77 million taken. In 2011 – the last complete year for data – about 5,000 banks reported robberies with $38 million stolen.

The trend continued into 2012 with an especially sharp decline in bank heists, reports the Wall Street Journal. Nationwide, there were 3,870 bank robberies last year, according to preliminary data from the FBI. That’s roughly half the number reported in 2004, and a far cry from the high hit in 1991 of nearly 9,400 bank robberies in the U.S.

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Why are criminals losing their taste for the old-fashioned bank stickup? As the WSJ story explains, better bank security and investigative techniques, as well as tougher sentencing for those getting caught, appear to play roles. Perhaps more importantly, though, bank robbers seem to be keeping up with the times by shifting to the electronic world, paralleling how banks have been replacing tellers with ATMs and digital transactions. While the number of traditional bank robberies has declined, crimes involving ATMs and online scams have soared.

“Clearly, as more and more transactions become electronic, more bank crimes become electronic,” Doug Johnson, an American Bankers Association vice president, told the Journal.

Interestingly, the age-old adage about why bank robbers rob banks—that’s where the money is—can now be used as an explanation for why criminals are increasingly turning to the Internet. Today, the cyber world is where the real money is. Going the electronic route is obviously less violent and dangerous, for criminal and victim alike, since no guns are involved.

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Still considering pulling off a bank job, with guns a-blazing? A group of British economists actually ran the numbers on bank robbery hauls and published a study last summer indicating that robbing physical banks is an absurdly high-risk, surprisingly low-payoff endeavor. “As a profitable occupation, bank robbery leaves a lot to be desired,” the study’s authors wrote.