Foiling Bank Robbers with Kindness

Seems to work:

The method is a sharp contrast to the traditional training for bank employees confronted with a suspicious person, which advises not approaching the person, and at most, activating an alarm or dropping an exploding dye pack into the cash.

When a man walked into a First Mutual branch last year wearing garden gloves and sunglasses, manager Scott Taffera greeted him heartily, invited him to remove the glasses, and guided him to an equally friendly teller. The man eventually asked for a roll of quarters and left.

Carr said he suspects the man was the "Garden Glove Bandit," who robbed area banks between March 2004 and November 2006.

What I like about this security system is that it fails really well in the event of a false alarm. There's nothing wrong with being extra nice to a legitimate customer.

Posted on April 18, 2007 at 6:24 AM • 39 Comments

Comments

billswiftApril 18, 2007 7:07 AM

I work at a Wal-Mart and that is precisely how we are supposed to deal with "suspicious" people. Approach them and ask them if they need any help, just like any other customer. If they need help, help them; if they were planning to shoplift, let them know you are there.

AndyApril 18, 2007 7:14 AM

Might work, but only up to a point. Probably better for thieves rather than robbers; better for Wal-mart as billswift says, than a raid on a bank.

"My, what a lovely balaclava. Can I take sir's shotgun?"

BunBunApril 18, 2007 8:15 AM

Hmm... maybe I should dress like the stereotypical bank robber next time I go to my bank so the teller will be friendlier. ;)

Seriously, though, great idea.

head janitorApril 18, 2007 8:41 AM

I have for years recomended this as a strategy to help with last-minute Christmas shopping. Go in the store looking like a shop-lifter, and you get LOTS of help very quickly.

SteveJApril 18, 2007 8:44 AM

Sounds good, but from the article: "If you're a bad guy, it scares the lights out of you"

That's good for the bank, because the robber is more likely to abort the robbery.

It's potentially bad for the staff, because if the robber doesn't abort the robbery, they're left dealing with a scared armed criminal, instead of a confident, comfortable armed criminal.

Fortunately, banks generally get this right and they don't ask bank staff to take risks during robberies: again from the article "Carr stressed that employees should never put themselves in danger". So it sounds like this has indeed been thought through...

RoyApril 18, 2007 8:53 AM

A nice false positive? Yes. I was once comparing prices at different supermarkets, so I was writing notes on a clipboard. I had a mob of people hoping they could help me. Later I learned I'd been mistaken for an undercover corporate spy.

uhohApril 18, 2007 9:51 AM

Friendly bank teller with great big smile: "Hi! How are ya doing today! How can I help you!"

Nervous bank robber: "Are you threatening me?!?!" *BLAM* *BLAM*

FooDooHackedYouApril 18, 2007 10:28 AM

Sounds good to some degree... However, some criminals (probably the amateurs) would panic and things could get violent fast.

AndrewApril 18, 2007 10:29 AM


Hush! This is one of the great secret weapons in the arms race against bank robbery. If enough banks started treating their customers this way, you wouldn't need bank guards! I train bank guards. I like my job . . . and would make an awful robber.

Seriously, if the lobby greeter makes eye contact with every single person who walks into the bank, and says the greeting of the day with a smile, most people feel friendly and safe. The potential robber is disturbed because he has to think, "This nice cheerful person is going to remember my face!" I have seen people do an about-face and leave a bank when this happens.

I've also had it happen to me twice when I was armed and guarding a bank. I see a suspicious person, greet them cheerfully, and they mutter about forgetting something and rush back to their car.

(Of course, what am I supposed to do now? Call 911 and report that a customer decided to turn around and walk away because I spoke to them? Deterrence has many advantages. Catching bad guys is not always one of them. But it's like the dog and the fire truck . . . what does he do with it if he catches it?)

Fortunately, there are still plenty of rude banks for him to rob.

Ever wondered why credit unions get disproportionately less robberies despite a lot less money for security? Now you know.

Greetings will not stop a planned robbery. They will stop most note-passers (who can always find a ruder bank) and a large chunk of impulse robberies.

Then again, banks are a loser place to carry out a planned robbery. Fast food places have more money and less security.

jayhApril 18, 2007 10:32 AM

Humorous incident reported in Britain some years ago, protesters slipped into a bank dressed in suits hoping to spring at a predetermined time. Alas it was casual friday and they stood out as suspicious.

NeilApril 18, 2007 10:34 AM

"Good morning sir. I'm you're friendly bank teller. How may I help you?"

"How dare you accuse me of being abank robber!!"

winterApril 18, 2007 11:23 AM

I seem to remember a similar story out of the mid east about this technique working to foil suicide bombers in malls and such. IIRC, security experts from over there were being consulted by authorities in the US for training and the like. Apparently it's quite an effective technique.

Jack C LiptonApril 18, 2007 11:35 AM

@Student:
"Do we have any term for a security system where a false positive is actually a good thing? Fail-good?"

This is actually "Fail-Safe".

The other idea-- "Graceful Degradation"-- is a concept implicit by resiliency... and usually requires humanity to be in the loop, somewhere.

Another term is "Fault Tolerant"... something that brittle systems are no good at.

Big ALApril 18, 2007 11:58 AM

This sounds phony and it wouldn't work. If you really suspected someone of being a bank robber, and therefore a potential killer, would you go out of your way to meet the guy?

I bet Bruce leaves milk and cookies for anyone breaking into his home...or maybe free copies of his books.

AnonymousApril 18, 2007 12:24 PM

> If you really suspected someone
> of being a bank robber, and therefore
> a potential killer, would you go out of
> your way to meet the guy?

Hollywood portrayals aside, the vast majority of bank robbers have little or no interest in killing people or really causing any mess at all. They want to walk in, get the money with as little fuss as possible, and get out and disappear as quickly as possible.

As Bruce says, this is a system that fails nicely. If someone acts suspiciously or matches the profile (wearing items that obscure themselves, etc), then you give them additional assistance and attention. If they're a bank robber, then they're that much more likely to get rattled by the added attention and to abort the job. If they're just an ordinary customer, then you've simply given them better than average service.

Its not perfect, of course, nothing is. Some robbers won't be rattled by the attention. Some perfectly innocent persons will get additional attention, which may require the banks to hire additional personel. And maybe, possibly, in a rare instance an overly nervous robber will tweek out badly from the added attention and "do something bad". But that case is just about as likely without the greeter; a robber so on edge that he's rattled into violence simply by being casually asked to remove his sunglasses & gloves is likely going to be rattled by something else in the experience.

It's about managing risk, not trying to eliminate it.

FredApril 18, 2007 1:32 PM

Any customer service that greets me cheerfully would put me into shock. This is diabolical.

TimApril 18, 2007 2:33 PM

This works as a good part of the security system for that bank. It does not _catch_ bank robbers - but then, catching them is not really the bank's job, is it?

nitsudimaApril 18, 2007 2:36 PM

When I worked in retail we were trained to greet every customer, especially the suspicious-looking ones. As has been mentioned, not only is that good customer service, but management knew full well that the best way to deter a shoplifter is to give him lots of attention.

There were several times, however, when our plain-clothes security guards were following a suspicious-looking person and they would specifically tell us to leave them alone. They *wanted* to catch them in the act. Not sure if they were reviewed on number of catches or what, but that strategy is certainly not in the overall best interests of the company.

Probably not in the best interests of a bank guard, either.

JanetMApril 18, 2007 2:52 PM

Andrew wrote: "Of course, what am I supposed to do now? Call 911 and report that a customer decided to turn around and walk away because I spoke to them?"

You know, that never occurred to me. I have on occasion walked out of a fast-food place because a cashier recognized me and said hello; it was because I was embarrassed that I'd been there so often.

Ian OsmondApril 18, 2007 3:13 PM

As others have said, this is how the Disney Store trained us to deal with potential shoplifters. AKA "special guests."

Former Bank EmployeeApril 18, 2007 4:08 PM

At least one major bank known for it's customer service found that being friendly served well to both increase sales as well as lower losses (deter robbery). Single robbers do not want to be noticed. The more attention they get, the less likely they are to proceed. The FBI debriefs all captured robbers. There are numerous anecdotes about robbers who explain they were going to rob Bank A, but people kept greeting them, so they went down the street to less-friendly Bank B, robbed it, and then got caught.

njjonApril 18, 2007 4:17 PM

There were several times, however, when our plain-clothes security guards were following a suspicious-looking person and they would specifically tell us to leave them alone. They *wanted* to catch them in the act. Not sure if they were reviewed on number of catches or what, but that strategy is certainly not in the overall best interests of the company.

If this is a person that security recognized from previous thefts they probably think they are a major shoplifter. Or at least part of a ring. These are the people that it pays to catch in the act and prosecute. The kid that steals a couple of shirts every once in while isn't really going to harm the bottom line of the store and may not even be worth the effort of calling the cops and having him processed. Especially if the casual shoplifter is a juvenile.

ParanoidApril 18, 2007 6:26 PM

I must be an anti-social freak since I detest 'greeters' and similar corporate-policy attempts at being friendly. It just rings so hollow and often interrupts my concentration.

But, I am also the type who dislikes being greeted with "How are you?" and such - nobody wants to know how you really are, so why do people insist on asking? Can't they just say, "Hello?"

HarryApril 18, 2007 8:22 PM

It is true that this method fails well when the suspicious person isn't a robber. What I'm wondering is how it fails if the person *is* a robber. Could this approach make the robber or robbery more dangerous? I haven't the experience to answer the question but it seems other readers do - what are your thoughts?

AndrewApril 18, 2007 9:18 PM

Big Al says >> This sounds phony and it wouldn't work. If you really suspected someone of being a bank robber, and therefore a potential killer, would you go out of your way to meet the guy?

All day, every day. That's why a bank guard is there. I'd hate for the 1 in 100,000 bank robber to miss me. He's the guy who causes me to get my paycheck! (I've often felt that being a bank guard is much like robbing the bank, except with regular hours, direct deposit and better customer service skills.)

It's much safer for the unarmed employees than for the bank guard. I want the potential robber to know that I'm there, I'm armed, and I'm alert. No surprises.

He could respond by shooting me. Not likely, he'd have to be very dumb, but it is possible. (I am not carrying money, everyone else will panic, and the police will be there much more quickly for 'shots fired' than for 'holdup alarm.')

The much smarter move for him is to complete a bogus transaction (so as not to leave a paper trail) and then leave peacefully and rob some other bank. This has happened at least a dozen times I know of, just in my area.

To answer Harry, if the guy is so agitated that a bank employee saying hello provokes him to pull a weapon and make a threat -- it was going to happen anyway at the teller line. At which point, you totally comply with all demands. If he's that cagey, aren't you glad you found out while his panic response is still to flee the bank instead of to complete the robbery? (Completing the robbery requires pointing guns at more people's heads; the money is irrelevant.)

So you don't lose anything and have some nominal gain even if he starts to go postal at the greeting stage.

Filias CupioApril 18, 2007 10:37 PM

@Andrew:

"Then again, banks are a loser place to carry out a planned robbery. Fast food places have more money and less security."

I've had similar thoughts, particularly back at highschool (a couple of decades ago now) when we had to spend a day selling raffle tickets for fundraising. At the end of the day, there would have been ~$50,000 in cash at the school, and no security that I noticed. Or more recently, I was playing at a bridge club in a wealthy part of town. Thats about 70 people in a room with few exits that nobody expects to communicate with for several hours, with wallets and jewellery. Three armed robbers (two for doors/crowd control and one to collect the loot) could get about $10000 cash and $10000 jewellery for little risk.

kiwanoApril 18, 2007 10:59 PM

I'm really glad to see this since, for the past few years, I've been doing all sorts of bullshitting on how a really effective passenger screening process you involve singling out the suspicious looking folks for a little extra passenger care (eg. observe "you seem a little nervous -- we know a lot of people can be nervous about flying -- is there anything we can do to help?" at least as a secondary screening, and decide to help or escalate on the basis of how "hinky" their reaction is). I bet it'd beat the hell out of banning liquids.

qwertyApril 18, 2007 11:17 PM

@Student:
Its not fail-good - the time spent looking after the suspicious customer is time not spent looking after your other customers. I suppose its a small price to pay for the security though.

I'll wear a tie if that makes them leave me aloneApril 19, 2007 10:49 AM

> I must be an anti-social freak since I detest 'greeters' and similar corporate-policy attempts at being friendly. It just rings so hollow and often interrupts my concentration.

You're not alone. A lot of male shoppers don't like to be pestered by staff unless they are actually having trouble finding something. Me, if I'm standing staring at a display, then I'm probably doing long division in my head to work out which one is the best value. Walking up to a complete stranger who is deep in thought and saying "Hello, how are we today?" is actually quite intrusive. Not only that, but the "pay special attention to shoplifters" thing is now so well known that if you get personal attention in an otherwise busy store, it's kind of insulting.

> But, I am also the type who dislikes being greeted with "How are you?" and such - nobody wants to know how you really are, so why do people insist on asking? Can't they just say, "Hello?"

I used to respond to that one with some banter about asking deep metaphysical questions early in the morning, but that schtick got old. Now I just say "Fine, thanks. And yourself?" even if I actually have a 104 F fever. It's kind of expected, these little meaningless social rituals, ya' know?

C GomezApril 19, 2007 11:20 AM

We've been trained to hate friendly sales staff because often such staff leads to a pressure sales situation.

However, for the bank, making contact with every person who walks through the door does make you less attractive of a target than a bank with less employees, less attentiveness, and less activity.

The point is making yourself a less attractive target. A determined bank robber is usually not a killer (otherwise, why rob banks? There are plenty of people in their homes than are easier targets). And if they are, life has rolled the quite unlucky dice for you today. It's rare, unlikely, but does happen... and not greeting the maniac isn't going to change that.

Billy AntitrustApril 20, 2007 1:29 AM

I think of this as an attacking the mental readiness of potential threat. A person planning on behaving maliciously has imagined certain scenarios and acclimated themselves to those. Presenting both an unfamiliar situation with a friendliness anchor makes the threat uncomfortable in the attack scenario (things aren't unfolding as expected) and at the same time offers an alternative the attacker can safely retreat to.

GinoApril 21, 2007 3:16 AM

I remember the kindness of the stock man who followed me from department to department in Wal-Mart asking me if I needed help. I didn't, and told him so. I needed an item for a non-standard use - a device to use as a camera mount. While in the checkout line, the store manager came by and hit me on the elbow to say "hi" and not to say "we've been following you around for the past half-hour."

e pluribus unumApril 22, 2007 5:34 PM

People walk into banks wearing garden gloves and shades all the time, don't 'cha know?

Why wouldn't you call the FBI at the same time?

bobMarch 8, 2013 12:57 AM

Tim: "This works as a good part of the security system for that bank. It does not _catch_ bank robbers - but then, catching them is not really the bank's job, is it?"

Well, if this would have been the person's first bank robbery, then sort of obviously by definition they wouldn't *be* a bank robber. And catching innocent people is no one's job.

Most of the reason law enforcement exists is to stop crime from happening, so in point of fact this is a far more elegant solution than one involving imprisonment.

If all crimes could be stopped by friendliness, we wouldn't need law enforcement, because there would be no criminals to catch.

Unfortunately, we live in the real world, so that won't be happening anytime soon. :/

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