Banks are being robbed and embezzled of funds at record rates across the country.
Every day this year, at least two banks were robbed in San Francisco and New York, and three in Los Angeles. So far this year, bank robberies in Baltimore are double their record pace a year ago. Eight American cities see banks robbed every other day.
Nowadays, bank embezzlements are more frequent than robberies. The FBI is investigating 800 cases of embezzlement of more than $100,000. One solved two years ago in Los Angeles involved embezzlement of $10 million and a case now being investigated (the Wells Fargo Bank in Los Angeles) involves as much as $21.3 million.
"A year ago, I was saying that losses from bank embezzlements were three times the losses from bank robberies," FBI Director William H. Webster said. "Today, they're five times the losses from bank robberies."
In fiscal 1980, robbers took almost $45 million from U.S. banks. There were more than 600 robberies in San Francisco, almost 800 in New York and more than 1,000 in los angeles. There were 7,300 bank robberies here last year, up from 4,776 as recently as 1977.
Bank robberies are getting to be more violent. In the first six months last year, robbers threatened bank personnel with bombs 104 times and with weapons almost 1,800 times. Twice, robbers set off bombs in banks, and discharged firearms 129 times. Bank robbers took 59 hostages, beat 71 persons and murdered 11.
So many banks are being robbed in such violent fashion that the FBI is reassessing its role in such robberies. The bureau has 400 agents assigned full time to bank robberies, far fewer than it once had. It recent years, the FBI has tended to let local law enforcement agencies chase bank robbers while it moved against organized crime and white-collar criminals.
Two things may get the FBI deeper into investigating bank robberies. One is the rising tide of robberies. At the same time, fewer bank robberies are being solved in part because local police do not have the resources of the bureau. Webster says that the bank robbery solution rate is down to 50 percent from 63 percent a few years ago.
"If a local law enforcement agency doesn't solve a bank robbery in the first 48 hours after the crime, it tends to go unsolved," he said. "Local agencies just don't have the staying power the bureau has."
While Webster has made no decisions about involving the FBI more in bank robberies, he concedes he is looking into the possibility. "Bank robbery is one area where there's trouble getting the exact formula for what is a concurrent jurisdication, but I think it would be a mistake to think that we're locked in concrete in the way we do things," he said.
The FBI has set up programs in Detroit and New York to stem the rising tide of bank robberies. In detroit, it got radio stations to break into broacasts when a bank robbery occurs to give descriptions of the suspects and offer rewards for their capture. The bureau set up a joint bank robbery squad with the New York City Police Department that has had success at solving robberies.
"These two programs really made a dent in it," Webster said. "I don't say they've eliminated bank robberies, but they've knocked the props out of the growth in bank robberies in those two cities."
One reason bank robberies have grown so dramatically in the last three years is inflation. Professional bank robbers are robbing more because they are feeling the pinch. Just last week, a man arrested outside San Francisco admitted to 40 bank robberies in the last two years.
FBI agents complain courts have been too lenient, letting robbers out on bail instead of keeping them in jail.
"I arrested the same guy three times in eight days not long ago," an agent assigned to the bank robbery detail in the Washington field office said. "He had robbed three different banks in those eight days."
The growing number of bank embezzlers has Webster even more concerned than does the epidemic of bank robberies. "Embezzling of banks is at an all-time high," he said. "The average bank robbery gets maybe $1,000 to $4,000, but we're talking about really big money in the embezzlements, a lot of which are done with the help of the computer. The average computer embezzlement we're seeing lately is $500,000."
He says it is not just tellers doing the embezzling. It is the vice president and even the bank president -- which makes banks reluctant to prosecute. "You'd be amazed at the number of bank presidents who are involved, especially the president of small banks," Webster said. "For some reason, they think the money is theirs.