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What is a Bank Robbery?

By Lauren Romano
Updated May 16, 2024
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A bank robbery is the act of a person stealing, or attempting to steal, from a banking institution during operating hours while using threat, intimidation or force. The act involves one or more robbers entering the bank and demanding money from an employee, usually a teller. The robber may or may not have or use a weapon. The motive typically behind bank robberies is monetary gain.

A bank robbery differs from a bank being burglarized. A robbery is using threat, intimidation or force against another person to gain money or valuables, therefore, it is stealing or intending to steal during operational hours when people are present that constitutes a bank robbery. When a person unlawfully enters the bank after it is closed to steal or attempt to steal money or valuables when no employees or customers are present is when a bank has been burglarized.

More often than not, the perpetrator commits the crime alone, though sometimes an accomplice may be involved. There are several methods for which a robber may inform one or more employees, and possibly customers, that a crime is taking place. For example, he or she may appear to make a transaction with a teller while silently passing a note demanding money. Other robbers may walk into the bank and make an announcement to everyone present that it's a robbery and then take money. The robber may also take hostages or make a quick escape after receiving the money.

During a bank robbery, the robber will make a demand either orally or by using a note. Some claim to have a weapon but may not actually have one; sometimes a robber shows the weapon, other times it is kept hidden. The weapons they typically have or claim to have are handguns or firearms; some have or claim to have an explosive device.

In the U.S., credit unions, savings and loan associations and banks are protected by the federal Bank Robbery Act of 1934 as long as they are part of the federal system, organized under federal law or are federally insured. A bank robbery is considered a federal crime.

Banking institutions typically have security features in place should a robbery incur. One is a secret trigger, often a button under the counter, that a teller can activate to notify police. There may also be other sensors in certain areas of the bank, such as laser sensors in a vault, that could also be activated. In some cases, all of the employees may not know about it. There may also be guards stationed at the bank.

To catch the robber, police may use surveillance footage to get a good look at the suspect. Banks may also use dye packs, which are put in with the money and release a dye on the offender. Some may also use electronic tracking devices.

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Discussion Comments
By Sporkasia — On Jan 15, 2015

@Feryll - You are correct. Banks robbers are also taking advantage of technology and using computers to siphon accounts, and using cameras to steel ATM card information.

I read an article a couple of years back about bank robbery statistics, and how the number of old-fashioned, gun-in-your-face bank robberies in the United States has been declining for more than 10 years. As you alluded to, most people who go into banks and hold them up do not get away with much money anyway, so the risk is usually much greater than the reward.

By Drentel — On Jan 15, 2015

@Feryll - I think you are correct. Whether you call it a bank robbery or not the way crooks get money from banks is definitely changing with the changes in technology. You only have to look at bank robbery movies to see the changes.

In older movies, the robbers are wearing masks and armed to the teeth, and they are tough guys. In today's movies, 9 times out of 10, the crooks robbing the banks are glasses-wearing geeks with computers. Honestly, I think my money and my bank accounts are much less secure than they were say 10 and 15 years ago.

By Feryll — On Jan 14, 2015

With computer systems being used so widely and virtually every type of transaction being connected to a computer in some way or another, the more sophisticated thieves are putting down the guns and putting their hands on keyboards when they want to take money from a bank.

This way is safer. The penalty if you get caught is probably going to be less harsh than if you physically went to a bank branch with a gun and stole money. Also, getting out of a bank with a significant amount of money without having dye packs explode on it, and without being shot or filmed by a camera is pretty tough. Strong armed bank robbery is not a profession that lends itself to a long and healthy career.

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