Ho, ho, holdup! Bank robbers get busy during holidays

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - End-of-year holidays mean a lot of things - Santa, carols, parties, cards and gifts. They also mean more bank robberies.

The number of holdups at U.S. banks tends to rise in December as crooks, some of them spurred by holiday consumerism, turn to robbery in the weeks leading up to Christmas, according to the FBI and security experts.

The trend is so pronounced that the FBI's regional office in Washington, D.C., told banks last month to be on their guard. It also warned would-be robbers that police were focused on thwarting bank stickups.

"Holidays are often desperate for a lot of people, and bank robbery is a desperate act," said Lindsay Ram, a spokeswoman for the FBI's Washington field office, which covers the U.S. capital and northern Virginia.

Ram said about a quarter of yearly bank robberies in the Washington area took place in December in the last two years - 17 of 72 in 2013, and 10 of 42 in 2012.

Nationally, the number of bank robberies reported in December is up 20 percent in the past five years, even as the overall number of robberies during the year has declined, according to FBI data.

Robert McCrie, professor of security management at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said the onslaught of holiday messages to consume and spend can affect crooks.

Some are addicts who need money for drugs, he said. But many stick up banks on impulse, acts that may be triggered by reports of other robberies, he said.

"December is a month of celebration, and people have a desire for stuff," he said. "It's not a matter of need, it's a matter of want."

'GIVE ME ALL YOUR MONEY'

So far this month, seven Washington area banks have been robbed, with two stickups by the same assailant, Ram said.

The capital area is not alone in seeing an upturn. In Chicago, police reported eight holdups in four days in early December.

"This month has started off very busy," said Special Agent Joan Hyde, a spokeswoman for the FBI's Chicago field office.

In one alleged holdup on Dec. 5, David Stallings, 55, walked into a TCF Bank in Bedford Park, Illinois, approached a teller and said, "This is what we're gonna do," according to a criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court.

Stallings displayed a handgun and told the teller, "Give me all your money." The employee handed over $1,391 that included a tracking device and "bait bills" - money whose serial numbers had been recorded - the complaint said.

Stallings fled on a bus and police nabbed him during a traffic stop, it said. He is charged with bank robbery and faces up to 20 years in prison.

His attorney, Geoffrey Meyer of the Federal Defender Program in Chicago, declined to comment.

The holiday upturn comes as the number of bank robberies has fallen steadily for years. They hit 5,684 last year, down 13 percent from 2010, according to the FBI's 2013 Uniform Crime Reports.

Bank holdups make up 1.9 percent of all U.S. robberies, the report said. The average loss last year was $3,542.

Other FBI data showed that most bank robbers are black males and only 4 percent of robberies involve violence. McCrie said bank employees are trained to hand over ready cash and get the robber out of the building as quickly as possible.

Eighteen people died in bank stickups last year, 15 of them robbers, the data showed.

Doug Johnson, senior vice president for payments and cybersecurity policy at the American Bankers Association, said the FBI warning in Washington provided a "teachable moment" for banks to emphasize security at the end of the year.

"I think it's really that combination of financial and emotional pressure that causes an uptick in robberies during the holidays," he said.

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