Dozens of banks and holding companies call North Carolina home, and many bank robbers, too, have taken a liking to the Tarheel State, according to the FBI.
Though bank robbery totals are going down nationally and in most states, heists are going up in North Carolina, and its robbery-to-bank ratio is one of the highest in the country. Through Oct. 20, 225 bank robberies had been reported in North Carolina, four more than for all of 1999, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
For a state with 2,493 banking offices, this many robberies is unusually high. North Carolina is just five robberies shy of Pennsylvania, which has almost twice as many banking institutions, and it has had more than twice as many as neighboring Virginia, which has 25 fewer banking offices. As the robberies mount, the FBI and the state's bankers have called a meeting for next month to discuss countermeasures.
Why do bank robbers find North Carolina so attractive?
Chris Swecker, the FBI special agent in charge for the state, said the answer is simple - customer-friendly also means robber-friendly.
"North Carolina was on the forefront of the branch banking expansion, and these convenient and friendly branches drew in the customers, but they also drew in the bank robbers," he said.
And when security barriers such as mantrap doors and bulletproof glass became popular in the early 1990s, many banks installed them, but North Carolina bankers did not follow suit, Mr. Swecker said.
"The banks have this friendly banking philosophy and say, 'We're a neighborhood bank and don't need a uniform code,' " he said.
Mr. Swecker pointed out that most robberies this year have been in smaller and more accessible branches away from downtown areas.
That has been true for $10 billion-asset First Citizens Bank and Trust Co. in Raleigh. It used to choose security measures based on crime rates in its branches' neighborhoods. But it is stepping up security in some less urban locales, where many of its 18 robberies this year have occurred.
"Bank robberies are moving outside of the city and into the more remote areas that are not high-crime areas but the ease of escape makes them look attractive," said Larry Brown, senior vice president of risk management at First Citizens.
Others insist, however, that security is not the issue. BB&T Corp. branches have been robbed 29 times this year - the most for any banking company in the state - yet its security system is the same in North Carolina as in the six other states, plus the District of Columbia, where it operates, said spokeswoman A.C. McGraw.
Paul Stock, senior vice president of the North Carolina Bankers Association, refused to blame lax security for the jump in robberies. The incidence of robberies is "random," he said, adding that heists are up this year because organized bank robbery groups that move from state to state are now targeting North Carolina.
"I don't think there is necessarily a tremendously inherent problem," he said. "There are a number of factors that lead to statistics of any particular year."
North Carolina banks have been steadily working to deter robberies. They all have some sort of teller training program, which the FBI and most banks say is an integral part of thwarting robberies.
The banks have also focused on catching robbers, and the FBI ranks North Carolina among the country's top 10 states in solving bank robbery cases. The state bankers group, like a handful of other state trade associations, offers a $5,000 reward for solving any bank robbery in the state, and the FBI adds $10,000.
However, both Mr. Stock and Mr. Swecker said that publicizing solved heists has done little to discourage robbers because the press often does not play up arrest stories and criminals do not necessarily read the newspapers.
"We believe we have reached a point that having a high solution rate is not going to bring bank robberies down," Mr. Swecker said.
He said better methods to stop robbers include adding security guards, installing higher-quality security cameras, and building mantrap doors. If these measures were adopted, he said, the robbery total could easily fall below 200 per year.
Mr. Swecker pointed out that Bank of America Corp., one of the few banking companies in North Carolina to use security guards in its city branches, has a lower robbery rate than other companies with a similar number of branches.
Mr. Stock, however, said that such aggressive security measures may not play well in North Carolina's smaller towns. He is advocating less intrusive measures. For example, he said, some banks in the Durham area have recently introduced a technology that tracks stolen money, which has cut down on robberies in that part of the state. Bankers, security people, and the FBI plan to discuss new security technologies when they meet next month.
"For whatever reason," Mr. Stock said, "bank robberies are on the rise in North Carolina, and we are not to assume it's going to correct itself. We will work together to see the number drop."