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Bank robberies on decline despite ripple

NZ Security Magazine, August/September 2017

Robberies are mostly attempted by young men who are amateurs desperate for cashRobberies are mostly attempted by young men who are amateurs desperate for cash


The mass move to on-line transactions, improved surveillance and security technology and changes in branch design are making bank robberies less lucrative and those attempting them more likely to spend time behind bars, writes Keith Newman.


Despite the occasional spurt of activity, bank robberies have been on a significant decline for the past seven years with the chances of successful getaways increasingly slim. It’s just not worth the risk, says Bank of New Zealand head of financial crime and security, Owen Loeffellechner.

“We’re doing everything we can to change the risk-reward equation in a criminal’s mind, including restricted access to cash with other layers wrapped around this.”

When considering the potential returns and the high likelihood they will be caught, “the risk of spending 14-years in jail for aggravated robbery is no longer a viable option”.

During the 1980s and 90s, most bank robberies were committed by those affiliated with gangs or by hardened criminals. Today, suggests Loeffellechner, robberies are mostly attempted by young men who are amateurs desperate for cash and who will most likely be caught within days or even hours.

In 2008, a rash of bank robberies pushed the numbers out to a peak of 87, but by 2015 they were down to a record low of around one a month, something that has been maintained despite a recent burst of activity.


Ripple in stats

2017 got off to a difficult start when a 47-year-old man committed two armed robberies at Kiwibank premises around Christchurch before fleeing on a pushbike. He was charged with aggravated robbery within weeks of the January offences.

In mid-April 2017, two offenders carrying firearms robbed an Armourguard van outside an ASB Bank in Auckland’s Dominion Rd, then fled on foot. In May, an armed man in a white hoodie held up the ANZ Bank in Glenfield, running off after failing to convince a neighbour to call him a taxi.

At the end of June a man wearing a motorcycle helmet and brandishing a sawn-off shotgun attempted to rob the Blockhouse Bay ASB Bank in West Auckland but fled empty-handed after staff activated emergency security screens.

And in mid-July, the Mt Roskill BNZ was held up and an amount of cash taken after a man brandished a weapon.

Loeffellechner downplays this ripple in the stats as not significant. “We would be concerned if there was a trend back to how it was in the past, but at this stage the number remains very low considering the number of branches around the country.”

While the extreme shotgun toting, helmeted criminal seems to hog the headlines, most actual and attempted bank heists are committed by those who are not disguised or overtly presenting a weapon, although they may imply that they do.

Loeffellechner says bank robbery is an increasingly futile business with cash held at banks declining and the use of cash dispensers like tele-cash recyclers (TCRs) making it almost impossible to gain unlawful access. “Those devices are under time delay if the normal authenticated process has been breached.”


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Traumatic for staff

Regardless, robbery remains a significant industry risk. “Robberies are extremely traumatic for staff and customers so our focus is still on monitoring everything that we can around that activity and doing all we can to prevent it.”

The no hats, hoodies, helmets...or sunglasses policy was an effective first step in security, which is followed by all banks to eliminate items of disguise and increase effective use of CCTV.

This was essentially about setting some standards for the environment, for example “you wouldn’t go to the casino with gumboots and a tee shirt”.

Loeffellechner says most bank branches are designed with a multi-layered security architecture that typically has “multiple security controls”, including panic buttons, bullet proof teller shields that close and other approaches he would not disclose.

Security tools like CCTV are both a deterrent “and a highly capable detective element as well”. They’ve undergone major advances in image quality, archiving capability, supporting technology and reduced size, resulting in increased effectiveness at reduced cost.

Banking, unlike most other industries, is an environment where workers are likely to be subjected to a range of threats, so staff receive security training from the time they are employed. That includes how to identify potential threats, “non-verbal cues around people’s state of mind” and body language.

If customers become abusive or threatening or a threshold of hostility or inappropriate behaviour is reached where bank officers feel unsafe, he says, the Police are called.


Security design factors

Loeffellechner says BNZ’s open-plan branch design is based on various security theories and methodologies, such as Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED). “This uses natural features like lines of sight and natural surveillance to connect the internal environment to the outside public domain, and tends to highlight good and bad activity more.”

Other elements for mitigating crime include placement of various items within the branch to “control and manipulate movement, allowing a greater sense of guardianship and presenting greater unpredictability for the offenders”.

Because things are no longer compartmentalised, he says, it’s hard to predict where the staff are or may come from. “Offenders feel stress because they like an environment which they can control.” 

Most branches “in areas where there’s deemed to be more potential for criminal activity” will have a security guard on the premises or stationed outside.

Loeffellechner says there’s a general trend of reducing the number of bank branches around the country and the footprint of those that remain, although that’s largely due to changing customer behaviour “and service needs moving to other channels”.

The New Zealand Bankers Association (NZBA) says New Zealand leads the world in digital banking, with more than 80% of us preferring online money management. This means less cash is in circulation and available at bank branches.


Less cash currency

The use of smart devices, such as Apple Pay, mobile wallets, tap ‘n’ pay and other evolving digital payment options, particularly by digital natives or those who have grown up using the latest technology, is expected to further reduce cash as currency and demand on the physical banking infrastructure.

Self-service machines and ATMs are also adding to the less-cash trend, and while they might seem an obvious target, Loeffellechner says they have a large security component built in from the design to service stage and are generally not subjected to physical attacks.

Threats have largely been around skimming, or people trying to compromise data or use counterfeit cards, an area that falls under fraud.

Armed robberies of security vehicles to access cash in transit are not seen as a bank issue but one for security companies to address. Extortion and misuse of cards falls into deception and fraud, which is outside of the Crimes Act definition unless there’s physical threat involved.

He says the banking industry has a long history of investment in security and strong partnerships with the Police and other agencies.

Police work alongside the NZBA to reduce crime and increase community safety, in particular within the banking environment.

A Police spokesperson said collating specific data of bank robberies would require collating that from different regions and suggested an official information Act request, which would have missed this edition’s publishing deadline.

It was conceded, however, that incidences of bank robberies have been relatively low for a number of years as “other cash carrying organisations have been perceived as easier targets”.

The centralisation of bank branches, security systems and practices adopted by financial institutions has made them less vulnerable to robbery.

While banks are at different stages in their strategic security investment there’s close collaboration between them, facilitated through the NZBA, which is aspiring toward industry standards.

NZBA policy director Antony Buick-Constable says banks are responsible for managing their own risks, including physical security, with their own security teams, policies and processes.

However, he says the association does advocate on behalf of the industry, with a focus on regulatory and reputational issues, and provides a forum for members to meet and discuss non-competitive issues of mutual interest, including banking industry security best practice.


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