Robberies at financial institutions-and credit unions, in particular-have been edging up over the past few years according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Statistics. Areas, people and institutions that used to think "that doesn't happen here," are getting a scary wake-up call, according to security experts.
Two Midwestern credit unions have learned that lesson the hard way, after two CU executives were abducted at gunpoint from their homes. The robbers, in eerily similar cases one year apart, forced the executives to return to the credit unions and open them (CU Journal, Dec. 23, 2002).
"There has been an increase in robbery, but not necessarily in the level of violence used during the commission of the crime," said John Hall, spokesperson for the American Bankers Association. "A lot of this used to be at big, urban institutions. Now, criminals are moving to smaller institutions and smaller towns."
And that, combined with the increasing visibility of credit unions, has translated to a rise in credit union robberies.
"As credit unions emerge and grow, they tend to have more branch operations, more storefront operations.their level of visibility has increased," said Vince Wagner of the CUNA Mutual Group, which insures about 94% of the nation's credit unions. "When credit unions used to be on the sponsor's site, they just weren't as visible, they weren't as accessible, and they didn't look like banks. But now, even though the number of credit unions has decreased, we have more credit union locations than we used to have."
Wagner said it's unlikely that credit unions have become a special target for robberies because most robbers don't know that there's any difference between a credit union and a bank. "Most don't distinguish between a credit union, a savings and loan, a thrift-they're all just 'banks' to a robber," he said.
Although the FBI's numbers for 2002 are still incomplete, the report released last month issuing statistics for the first half of the year indicate that robberies increased last year, too. Hall suggested one possible reason for the growth in robberies is the economy, noting that a common theory is that as the economy tanks and jobs become more scarce, more people turn to crime.
But CUNA Mutual is hopeful that once the statistics are complete, they will actually a show a decrease in robberies for 2002.
CUNA Mutual keeps its own tally of credit union robberies, but because the company may have different reporting standards and only tracks those credit unions it insures, Wagner explained. "Our numbers will never match the FBI's. But we cover enough credit unions that our numbers should track the same trends."
He noted that CUNA Mutual's numbers indicate there could actually be a light decrease in the incidence of credit union robbery. "If there is a trend, there's been a very slight uptick in robberies where multiple people are involved. In most cases, it's still one person entering the facility and passing a note."
But strangers things can happen, as two recent abductions of credit union personnel for the purpose of robbery attest. "We don't seem to be seeing a great level of increased violence, but the unusual always attracts a lot more attention," Wagner commented.
In this case, the "unusual" is the two episodes of abduction at two separate Midwestern credit unions nearly a year apart. In both cases, a member of credit union management was abducted from her home at gunpoint and taken to a CU branch for the purpose of giving the perpetrators access to cash.
The chilling similarity didn't stop there. In both cases, the credit union officers' husbands and daughters were also tied up, and in both cases, the perpetrators had reason to believe that the daughters would not be serious liabilities: the daughter in the Ohio credit union was 21 year old but legally blind and the daughter in the Wisconsin incident was five years old and has Downs Syndrome.
After The Credit Union Journal alerted the two separate FBI field offices investigating the two cases, agents are looking into any possible connection between the two eerily similar crimes.
As "unusual" as these two cases seem, "these things have been happening for quite some time," said John Moore, a 30-year law enforcement veteran who now works as a security consultant. "Getting people to believe that something like this could happen to them is a real challenge. When we tell credit union executives about some of the security risks they face, they don't believe it, they feel like it's a waste of time to even think about it. It doesn't happen every day, but without a doubt it does happen. The extortion issue is a real risk, and I guarantee you that (the two credit union executives who were abducted from their homes) didn't think it would happen to them."
If there is anything positive to come from these two incidents, it may be that they will help make it easier to convince credit union executives to consider such risks.
"It's getting easier to convince credit unions that the risk is there," Wagner offered. "With those two cases being highlighted and the post-Sept. 11 realities, people are more willing to think about the different types of disasters that can occur and to plan for that. But we all want to be safe in our environments, we all want to believe that."
And here are some statistics from the ABA that may help:
* three out of four robbers are caught within 18 months of the crime, and hostages are taken in only about 1.4% of armed robbery cases, with injuries reported in about 2% of cases.