Robberies Sad Testimony To Success: What Credit Unions Can Do

Register now

The good news: credit unions are adding branches. The bad news: criminals know it.

Adding to the bad news, according to at least one branch security expert, is that how security is melded into a facility is often done haphazardly. That doesn't necessarily mean that they aren't taking the proper security precautions, said Paul Seibert, Financial Planning Consultant with Emick, Howard & Seibert, Inc., Seattle, Wash. Rather, they are having trouble melding safety concerns with the personal service that makes the CU industry stand out.

"Ninety-five percent of the branches I go to, there doesn't appear to be a strong security aspect to their planning," Seibert said. "They may study the bandit barrier, but won't think about the privacy issues or member relations management."

For example, he said, it's difficult for teller and member to communicate from either side of a 1 1/4 -inch piece of bullet-resistant glass. Perhaps even more disturbing is that vital information has to be shouted through a small hole, loud enough for others within earshot to hear.

"I have been in credit unions where I can understand the social security number and the amount of cash that is being transacted (as I stand) several teller windows away," he said. "While (The barrier) protects the tellers, it does not at all address the member's privacy."

Seibert was also the lead author of Credit Union Facility Strategies, Planning and Management, a three-volume set of books offered by Credit Union Executives Society, and has been responsible for the completion of more than 1,100 branch facilities (available for $499 from

While the number of robberies was actually down in 2004 with "a little over 300 compared to 369 in 2003," Seibert said, the potential is always there. Factors that could impact these numbers include the unemployment rate, the crime rate of an individual community and the state of the nation.

When planning new branches, Seibert said, CU officials should choose building and design firms that "have lots of experience and a strong security aspect to their work."

In addition to understanding retail aspects, ergonomics, merchandising and messaging, they need to determine how layout could impact an invasion.

"The use of desks, how you position the teller system, and whether you have single or double pods all play a role in providing a level of security that is both passive and very effective," Seibert said.

He and other industry experts agree that no security measure has proven better than the rest. In fact, Seibert said, "Unfortunately, there are no records kept as to what kind of equipment works best."

Obviously, credit unions in high crimes areas that include portions of Los Angeles, are more apt to install bandit barriers.

"Either they are in an area with a high incidence of robberies or the neighbors have barriers and they don't want the robbers to think they're an easy target," Seibert said.

Certainly, that high-touch service is diminished, but members realize why they're giving that up.

"It's a difficult challenge to keep the friendly environment with some of these devices," said Vince Wagner, Risk Management Specialist, CUNA Mutual Credit Union Protection Solutions Group, Madison, Wis. "Still, a lot of credit unions are able to have both."

One of the less obtrusive devices is the De La Rue cash-dispensing machine through which members only can deposit and withdraw cash using a personal account number.

"For instance, if the member hands the teller $300, she doesn't even count it," said Janet Anderson, President of Utilities CU in Omaha, Neb. Her credit union invested $40,000 in the machine last March. "It goes directly into the machine where it is counted and recorded."

Four Armed Robbers

Anderson said her board chose the machine as a deterrent after being robbed a few years ago and investigating several devices. Tested in mid-August by four armed suspects, Anderson said, she was confident in the investment.

"Four suspects came in to rob the place, but when the tellers said, 'We can't give you any money because it's tied to the machine,' they just left," she said. Once they exited the building, the CUs security system automatically locked the doors. A silent alarm had already notified police of the pending attempt. The four robbers and their getaway driver were arrested within two days, thanks to a separate digital surveillance device, also upgraded.

The digital video recording that replaced an older and less-effective VHS tape aired on TV, showing the suspects inside the building as well as the getaway car from every angle, she said. Turns out three of the five robbers were teenagers that brandished fake weapons.

Wagner said while the cameras don't deter robberies, they make good evidence, and therefore are always recommended.

Anderson said the De La Rue system offered her CU the added benefit of speeding up the accounting process and serving as a deterrent for internal theft and employee embezzlement.

And added bonus, she said: "Tellers no longer have to balance their drawers at the end of the day, it creates a better audit trail and there are no balances to be done at night. And since we installed it in March, we've had no overages and no shortages."

By the way, Anderson said, that after the television broadcast that highlighted the cash-dispensing machine, several members commented that they didn't notice the change in service methods as they still got that personal interaction with the tellers.

Two Schools of Thought

Many credit unions nationally have gone cashless, a strategy Wagner said has created two schools of thought.

"You limit your losses, but you also run the risk that you could agitate the (robber) who will take it to the next level-violence," he said. "We suggest that credit unions do have some cash available to give the robber just to get them out the door."

Anderson said she was given the same advice since the Aug. 19 attempted robbery.

"Since the robbery, we did bring out a cash drawer that will have a minimal amount of money in it," she said. "But I have mixed emotions about that. It's there for the safety of the tellers. But, if (the robbers) are only looking for $500 to $1,000 anyway, are they going to continue to keep coming back because they know we have it. And, if we only give them $300, is that going to make them mad?"

Fortunately, Seibert said, only a small portion of financial institution robberies are "take downs," those in which several robbers seek to take control of the branch and its employees so they can get to the money in the safe.

The majority tend to be quick hits, he said.

"An interesting fact is that 60 to 65% of robbers rob for convenience," observed Seibert. "They rob close to home. That means only 30 to 35% case a branch before they go in."

The average take, $500 to $4,500, he said.

"You really have to look at the situation- (your location, your membership base)-and see what method will work best for you," he said, explaining that one of his clients-a major bank -created independent pods with remote tellers and tubes that shoot transactions to a separate part of the building. "It's a way to line some high security with some high member development," he said.

Another institution, he said, uses a greeter as a deterrent.

"If someone is on the floor to greet a person, say hello and ask if he needs assistance, chances are good that a robber is going to say, 'No, I don't need any help' and walk out," Seibert said. "Remember, 60 to 70% of robberies are opportunity." By stopping that person at the door, he said, it interrupts their determination to follow through.

In 2003, Missouri and Delaware were among several states in which financial institutions adopted a "No Hats, No Hoods, No Sunglasses" program to prevent robberies. And, while the success of such a policy is difficult to measure, Wagner said, he suspects it's worked to shift robbers, who would normally use such props to disguise themselves, away from those institutions.

Other good devices that help in both robberies and burglaries - when the branch is closed - include glass breakage detectors, motion detectors and alarms with sophicated mechanisms that report incidents immediately to local law enforcement officials.

Another device to which some credit unions have turned are the so-called "mantraps," a set of double-doors with bulletproof security glass in which the robber can be trapped.

"They have a metal detector device that sets off an alarm and locks the doors (keeping them from entering the CU," he said. While the first designs would lock the person inside a glass box, newer devices will let them escape out the front door.

While Seibert said he's seen a decline in use of mantraps, he uses them where he sees fit. "I like them and have used them in very high security situations with very busy locations," he said. "But, they do slow the process of members getting in and out. And, members with a lot of coins in their pockets (for instance) may get stuck."

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, click here.