Utne Blogs > Media

How to Rob a Bank and Get Caught

Bank Notes bookFor nearly a decade, writer and artist Ken Habarta has been scanning newspapers, FBI alerts, and the internet for information on bank robberies. He's especially drawn to robberies that involve a note. "The single most popular way of robbing banks," he says, "is the quieter, gentler act of passing a note." Gone are the days of pistols in the waist line.

Habarta posts the notes, security camera stills, and other details of bank robberies to his blog, Bank Notes (he released a book of the same name before taking the project online). And he knows his notes.

"There are notes that clearly convey experience. Most of these guys tend to be repeat offenders," he explains. "A lot of first timers throw everything into the note: I've got a bomb; I've got a gun; I know where you live. These people often get caught shortly thereafter."

He revels in the absurdities. "The average take is between $2,000 and $3,000, but what's bizarre is the amount of people who write in demands of how much they want. There was one person who just wanted $100."

One absurdity is his own creation: a robbery note generator. Click "Go" and you get as many notes as you can stomach:

Stay calm. Don't be stupid. You have 15 seconds.

I have a gun. 100s, 50s, 20s. Thanks.

Stay cool Put it in the bag. You have three minutes.

Think! I have a gun.

Most robbers hardly need a note. "I really think down the road they'll institute a dress code for banks," Habarta says. "You walk into a bank and you've got giant spectacles, a cowboy hat, and a huge beard... these are red flags."

A Dayton Daily News article, which Habarta linked to, addresses the bank dress code issue:

"If you see a guy (in a bank lobby) with a baseball cap, dark glasses and a mustache (or) beard, it’s probably a bank robber, not a customer," said Lt. Larry Faulkner of the Dayton Police Department. Faulker said the disguise is so common, he advises tellers to call the police if they simply see a man dressed in that manner waiting in line.

The FBI and police nationwide are advising banks to adopt a policy of "no hats, no hoods, no sunglasses, no cell phones" to head off robberies. More banks are doing so, but in some cases the idea is pitting police against bankers concerned about alienating law-abiding customers.

Bank robberies have declined over the years, said Special Agent Harry Trombitas of the FBI's Columbus office, but the numbers could be even lower if more banks had the "no hats" policy.

It's all a little sad. But it's fascinating too. I can't stop scrolling through Habarta's vignettes. And there's something else I can't stop: the echo of Greg Beato's Mug Shot Nation piece we ran a couple of issues back. Beato wasn't talking about bank robbery images, he was talking about our voyeuristic obsession with the mug shots that splash across television screens, websites, newspapers, and magazines. Unflattering photos of people who, in some cases, have been convicted of no crime (and may in fact be innocent). The people that appear on Bank Notes are guilty and they've got the big glasses and the beards to prove it. Still, Beato's critique resonates:

If appearing in this context is a fate so unpleasant that it can persuade other people to avoid engaging in illicit behavior, then surely it constitutes a penalty. And it’s a penalty that’s being applied without the hassle of due process.

We tend to overlook this fact because, frankly, it spoils the mood. The presumption of guilt makes it easier to justify laughing at 23-going-on-zombie crack whores and bug-eyed misfits sporting felony-caliber mullets. They deserve the derision they get—they’re criminals! But the joke is really on us. As law enforcement agencies expand their powers of surveillance, as they encourage us to think of punishment without due process as standard operating procedure, we not only tolerate it, we click and click and ask for more. If America’s citizenry were more uniformly presentable, and its mug shots correspondingly less entertaining, we might protest these developments more strongly. Instead, we simply laugh at the latest person guilty of wearing a cow costume while being arrested, then pass along the link to our friends.

And after all of that I've still got Bank Notes open on my desktop. And I'm still clicking on the note generator:

This is a robbery. No dye packs. Hurry up.

Money now.

Stay calm.