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Cash and Carried Away

Bait money: Tellers slip robbers a few bills with prerecorded serial numbers to aid in prosecution if they're found in the robber's possession.

Electronic trackers: A few years ago in Baltimore tiny transmitters would be included in cash given to robbers. Antenna towers would pick up the signal and relay it to police. But the system had glitches and has been dismantled. Now a system relying on global positioning satellites is said to be under review in some parts of the country.

"The seriousness of what I was doing started to hit me," says a now-imprisoned Calvin Adams, who robbed 17 area banks last year. (Ricky Carioti - The Washington Post)

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Security cameras: Just about every robber gets his picture taken. The new digital images broadcast on television are proving to be one of the most effective tools.

Bandit barriers: Some robbers are deterred by seeing the tellers safely locked behind bullet-resistant plastic. Some banks in California have gone a step further, instructing tellers behind barriers not to cooperate and to walk away when a robber passes a note. The tactic is controversial: What if the robber is provoked to put a gun to the temple of a customer?

Armed guards: Also controversial. Many banks would rather let the robber go than risk a shootout.

There are clever low-tech strategies. A couple years ago in Massachusetts, security directors noticed that a high percentage of robbers favored the same fashion statement: baseball caps and sunglasses. So banks put up signs asking customers to remove caps and sunglasses before entering. Banks that didn't put up the signs experienced a higher proportion of robberies, according to Tony Brissette, a bank security consultant in Shrewsbury, Mass.

And money talks: Wells Fargo & Co. in San Francisco has raised the reward to an empirical science. Since instituting a standing $5,000 reward in 1991, the bank has paid $860,000 to catch 258 suspects, or $3,333 per robber -- a good return on the dollar, says William Wipprecht, senior vice president and chief security officer of Wells Fargo.

"More people are likely to know a bank robber than to win the lottery," Wipprecht says, "so we're giving those people the chance of a lifetime."

Getting Away

Some bank robbers feel the industry's pain. They would like to help.

In 1999, Troy Evans finished a 7 1/2-year sentence for five robberies that netted about $50,000 over six months in Colorado and neighboring states.

Now Evans, 41, is on the lecture circuit, giving motivational speeches about how he turned his life around -- and talking to banking trade groups about robbery and security from his side of the teller window. He wrote a book last year called "From Desperation to Dedication: Lessons You Can Bank On."

"It's pretty much common knowledge the people who work in the banks, they are instructed by policy to do exactly as you tell them to do," Evans says. "Why go into a liquor store where the owner might have a gun behind the counter? Why not go into a place where they're instructed to give you the money?"

He took advantage of that when he was on his spree, trying to finance an omnivorous drug habit. He wore a ball cap and sunglasses. His demand notes, jotted on deposit slips, were precise: He asked for 20s, 50s, 100s, and he instructed tellers not to give him dye packs or bait money. Having dated a teller once, he knew to specify certain drawers he wanted the tellers to empty. He showed a pistol, which he says wasn't loaded.

He was caught after an ex-girlfriend saw his image from a security camera on television.

Evans doesn't advise banks to modify their policy of cooperating with robbers. "The last thing you want to do is make someone angry who has a gun," he says.

But there are other measures that might have prevented him from striking.

One is hire more men. "If I walked in there and saw a male teller, who's bigger than me and might cause problems, then I'd turn around and walk right back out," he says.

Another deterrent, believe it or not, is "great customer service," Evans says. Greet all customers as they enter, look them in the eye, smile and ask how they'd like to be helped. "Kill two birds with one stone," he says. "The legitimate customer loves to be greeted and made to feel important. The would-be bank robber hates it and doesn't want to be noticed."

Banks should consider employing full-time greeters, Evans says, at least on Fridays, when most robberies occur.

Evans, who earned two college degrees while in prison, wrote letters of apology to all the tellers he robbed and probably terrified. Since he is barred from contacting them, he says he mailed the letters to Santa Claus at the North Pole. His ambition is to do enough good works to someday earn a presidential pardon.

He long ago got over his anger at the ex-girlfriend who alerted police: "I can say the worst thing that happened to me -- going to prison -- was also the very best thing that happened to me. It saved my life."

Calvin Adams, too, at first was angry at the person he thinks tipped off the agents. Now he says he's kind of grateful. Sooner or later, he thinks, the runaway train would have killed him.

"The money was good, but in the end, it don't pay," he says. "It didn't feel like it was paying."

Adams is taking classes in prison that he hopes will prepare him for work when he gets out.

"Honest working money," he says. "You feel better about it when you got it."


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