Bank robbery season here for the winter

‘Tis the season for bank robberies, too.

“We typically notice a bump around the holidays,” FBI Atlanta spokesman Agent Stephen Emmett said.

Bandits are becoming bolder, and some law enforcement officials believe the number of bank heists has increased. In the past two months, there have been several dozen bank robberies in metro Atlanta.

You see the headlines week after week.  The story line is often to same: thief walks into branch, thief hands teller threatening note, thief walks away with cash.

Of course, there are exceptions to what seems to be the rule -- from the violent gun-wielding duo who shot an Embry Hills bank employee in the leg last month when they felt he was taking too long meeting their demands, to the Vine City bandit whose note last week signed off with “Merry Christmas.”

“Between October and March, we tend to have more,” said Atlanta Police Sgt. Tommie Collins, who heads the commercial crime task force.

“In the cooler months, it’s easier to conceal weapons.”

Statistics from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting database show bank robberies increase in the first and fourth quarters of a year, with losses eclipsing $15 million nationally each quarter in 2008.

The fourth quarter consistently led with the most jobs pulled, according to FBI data recorded up to 2008.

“In general, it is not uncommon for the number of robberies to increase during tough economic times,” said David Oliver of the Georgia Bankers Association.

Numbers from the American Bankers Association showed the most significant spike in bank robberies matched the economic downturn of 1992.

There have been 35 bank robberies in the city of Atlanta this year, compared to 24 in 2008.

Who are these criminals, and what motivates them?

Some make names for themselves by their methods or their idiosyncrasies.

Bruce Allen Hughes earned the moniker “Crown Royal bandit” because he carried money away in the brand's trademark velvety purple pouch -- and because he sometimes smelled of alcohol.

Hughes, 48, began his local exploits at an Alpharetta bank in 1997 and had hit 28 banks in Tennessee and North Georgia over 11 years, nabbing some $300,000 in cash before he was caught in April 2008.

Earlier this month, police arrested 35-year-old Stephen Bowen -- known as the “lunchtime bandit” -- because of the time of day he struck. From late October to early December, Bowen is accused of holding up 10 banks in the metro area.

“He got greedy, he got predictable, and he got caught,” bank security specialist Chuck Williams said of Bowen. “He started to leave a trail.”

Williams, who is a member of the Georgia Association of Bank Security, said bank robbers are not born.

“They’re created in their own minds out of a feeling of necessity or of power,” he said. “They act on (other people’s) fear, or on the principle that people owe them something.”

The need for drugs can spur some repeat offenders, said the FBI’s Emmett.

“A plausible explanation for serial robbers is they have an addition issue,” he said. “This is not something that a person simply loses their job and starts doing.”

In fact, Hughes and Bowen are unique. Collins noted a trend of more first-timers jumping into the bank robbery game.

Bank officials communicate with one another and with local and federal law enforcement when a robbery happens, so everyone knows if the perpetrator has been around before, he said.

“Some have tried and didn’t do it again because they felt that the risk and the reward didn’t weigh out right."

But Williams said the choice to rob a bank isn’t an easy one.

“When somebody steps into the bank robbing world, they’re taking a big step,” he said.

“If they were smart, they wouldn’t be robbing banks,” Williams said. “They have a plan ‘A,’ and if it goes smoothly, fine. But if not, they don’t know what to do.”

Bank employees are trained to spot suspicious individuals, such as someone wearing a motorcycle helmet or a hat and sunglasses – and acknowledge them.

“Often, if you ask if you can help them, you’re putting them on notice that you notice them,” Collins said. “Once you upset their plan, they get lost and twisted, and often end up leaving the bank.”

The banking industry invests millions of dollars in preventive methods, said Oliver of the Georgia Bankers Association.

“Banks invest heavily in sophisticated alarm systems, various forms of bait money, surveillance cameras and other high-tech methods to help law enforcement catch robbers,” Oliver said., a Web site dedicated to circulating pictures of wanted bandits, is funded wholly by different banking companies operating within the state, Oliver said.

Collins said Atlanta police always offer a reward through Crime Stoppers Atlanta. Days before he was arrested, a $10,000 reward was offered for help capturing Bowen, the “lunchtime bandit."

Collins said bank employees are strongly discouraged against taking heroic action against robbers. Even banks that employ private security typically place the guards outside the branches.

“I don’t disagree with this policy,” Collins said. “Money is replaceable.”