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197 Chicago bank robberies—so far this year

Heists are on the rise—but are thieves really cashing in?

(Getty Images )
December 06, 2012|By Mick Swasko, @mickswasko | RedEye

Chicago is set to have a big year for bank heists.

After passing 2011's total of 115 total bank robberies in August, Chicago's FBI field office now expects to surpass another benchmark: 200 bank robberies for 2012, a high number for a one-year period. Currently, 197 robberies have happened in Chicago and its five collar counties, well shy of 2006's record of 284.

"We fully expect to exceed that 200 mark, [since] over the last 10 years, December has averaged the highest number of bank robberies in a month," said Joan Hyde, a spokeswoman for the Chicago-area FBI field office.

But the general public has some misconceptions when it comes to bank robberies. For one, it's not groups of well-organized gangsters taking hostages in multimillion-dollar bank heists, nor is it desperate fathers trying to get cash for the holidays. These are the cornerstones of TV and movie capers. The reality is that most criminals take a relatively small sum, and they usually face stiff penalties when caught.

When the tally from 2011 was passed in August, then-FBI spokesman Ross Rice said a down economy was hardly to blame. Many bank robbers are desperate, he said, but their problems are not usually tied to economic cycles. The majority of bank robberies that occur in Chicagoland—Cook, DuPage, Will, Kane and Lake counties—are committed by individuals trying to support debts created by gambling or substance abuse.

"Most of them feel [banks are] where you can get the most amount of money," Rice, who retired Dec. 1, said, adding that it's a big gamble with the law. The average haul for a bank robber is between $500 and $1,000, and federal sentencing guidelines state that an offender can face a maximum of 20 years in prison. Plus, officials say, three out of every four bank robbers are apprehended, so the odds aren't great for would-be thieves. Technology has given police an upper hand.

"The digital technology has advanced just tremendously; it's a great boon to us," Rice said. Fifteen years ago, grainy VHS tapes made it more difficult to identify bank robbers. But with digital recording equipment, the FBI—which is the federal agency responsible for investigating bank heists—has a much clearer picture to work from and circulate to the public. Rice said many cases are solved with the public's help, with offenders' photos posted on bandittrackerchicago.com. In some cases, criminals have seen their own photos surface on the Internet and called to turn themselves in.

Hyde noted that the 197 robberies doesn't mean there have been 197 separate suspects. In some cases, serial robbers account for several thefts. Recently, police nabbed the "Stringer Bell Bandit," named for what the FBI says is a resemblance to a character from the HBO crime drama "The Wire," whom they suspect is responsible for hitting 11 banks since October.

Hyde assumes 2012 will hit the 200 robberies mark, making it a year with an excessive number of robberies. There's no anticipation, however, that this year will surpass 2006's record.

"Of course it's higher than we'd like to see it," she said. "This will go down as a year with a high number of bank robberies."

mswasko@tribune.com

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