Cognitive Daily

Scare off bank robbers with a smile

A good friend of mine was a bank manager for many years. He told me that robberies are much more common than you might think: bank employees are trained to comply with robbers’ demands, minimizing losses by keeping relatively small amounts of cash in their drawers. Typical training also suggests that employees don’t confront or establish eye contact with robbers, activating hidden alarms if possible but not causing a stir.

The reason you don’t hear about them is banks don’t like to publicize robberies — they’re bad for business.

But a new program in Seattle turns all this on its head. Instead of responding passively to suspicious individuals, bank staff are being encouraged to walk right up to them and shake their hands. The theory is that overtly friendly behavior will disorient potential robbers before they become aggressive:

“If you’re a legitimate customer, you think, ‘This is the friendliest person I’ve met in my life.’ If you’re a bad guy, it scares the lights out of you,” said Drew Ness, a vice president of Bellevue-based First Mutual Bank, who advocates the approach.

Carr, who has taught the method to employees at 16 Washington banks over the past few years, credits the system in part for the drop in Seattle bank robberies from 80 in the first three months of 2006 to 44 during the same period this year.

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.

The most surprising aspect of this story to me is the number of robberies we’re talking about — over 80 in three months, in one city alone. No wonder banks are trying a new approach!

(via Kottke — and see that site for an interesting update: Apple Store employees are trained in a similar fashion, chatting it up with shoplifters about their “purchase”)


  1. #1 Kayhan Gultekin
    April 13, 2007

    I’d like to know how the nation-wide bank robbery changed from 2006 to 2007 before saying that this method helped at all.

  2. #2 Dave Munger
    April 13, 2007

    I don’t think we’ve got numbers yet for 2006, but here’s a chart through 2005.

    National crime rates don’t change that quickly, so I doubt you’d ever see an almost 50 percent drop in crime nationwide over such a short period of time.

  3. #3 Mark
    April 13, 2007

    Surely banks report every robbery to the authorities. In that case, I don’t understand the “publicizing” statement. The public doesn’t hear about every robbery because the news media do not consider a robbery important enough to report unless someone is hurt, there is a significant difference between it and “normal” robberies (like the “Barbie Bandits” in Georgia), or a tv station happens to have a camera close enough to show something.

  4. #4 Dave Munger
    April 13, 2007

    I wasn’t suggesting that banks don’t report robberies; just that they don’t go out of their way to attract media attention.

  5. #5 Ted
    April 13, 2007

    Today’s news – Kindly thief allows ailing store clerk to call 911.

    For some reason it made me very sad to read this all the way through.

  6. #6 js
    April 13, 2007

    This is a reasonable approach, but it seems like a good way to get shot if you get the wrong jumpy would-be felon on the wrong day.

  7. #7 Kapitano
    April 13, 2007

    “If you’re a legitimate customer, you think, ‘This is the friendliest person I’ve met in my life.”

    If a bank clerk shook me warmly by the hand and came on extra friendly, I’d think “Fuck off you creep, I don’t want your obviously fake charm, I just want you to do your job. And if you can’t do that, I’ll find another bank.”

    Besides, how are they supposed to spot “potential robbers” and single them out for the smarm treatment? Anyone wearing sunglasses? Anyone they haven’t seen before? Anyone who just looks a bit rough and unshaven?

  8. #8 Dave Munger
    April 13, 2007

    how are they supposed to spot “potential robbers” and single them out for the smarm treatment?

    I don’t know — presumably that’s part of the training as well. As long as they’re not practicing some sort of discrimination (friendlier to African Americans?), it’s hard to argue with the results.

  9. #9 Adria
    April 13, 2007

    I agree with Kapitano. I hate the banks that feel the need to greet you with a fake smile and ask you how your day is. I don’t like interacting with fake people to the point where I do all my banking at the ATM and shop at the grocery stores where you can check yourself out.

  10. #10 Nate R.
    April 13, 2007

    Confronting a potential robbery is a good deterrent. My night job is heading up security at a strip bar and this has been an effective way in confronting potential trouble makers. “Kill’em with kindness” is very powerful. Those that have posted about not wanting to be confronted by “fake” people are losing the point as to what the article is about and thats thwarting a robbery so customers like my self don’t have to share the terrible experience with bank employees. Sure their is some type of profiling that is going on before one is approached and if one is wearing sun glasses and garden gloves expect to get a look over.

  11. #11 Dave Group
    April 14, 2007

    I’m assuming they’re basing this approach on the fact that most bank robbers share certain psychological characteristics or are of a certain psychological type. Perhaps the bank robber is generally of average or below-average intelligence, has poor social intelligence, low self-esteem, yada yada yada. Some years ago here in Buffalo, a bank teller told the robber he had to have an account to rob the bank (evidently she must have seen that the hamster in his head was pretty slow), and the guy got discouraged and left. This friendly approach definitely would not work with an armed gang that immediately takes control of the whole bank, or a drug addict in desperate need of money for his next fix.

  12. #12 Larry
    April 14, 2007

    As the creator of Safecatch, I can tell you the greeting portion of the program is just one small part. When it is used in it’s full capacity and the bank staff reacts as a team, they can (in the Northwest) prevent 90% of bank robberies.

  13. #13 Dave Munger
    April 14, 2007


    I’d be interested to see whatever additional information you’ve got about your program — what the research basis for it is, and how it’s applied.

  14. #14 Larry
    April 14, 2007

    Over the last ten years the Seattle Division has opened more than 3,553 bank robbery investigations. Making it one of the hardest hit regions in the United Sates. This places me in the unique position to take an in depth look at what occurred before, during and after the bank robbery. Two years ago, I began researching the robberies from the prospective of, “there are two ways to stop a bank robber, police response or the investigative process.” With that “eye” I asked the question, “what bank procedures assist in this and which ones take away from it. The answer was safecatch, which is a two prong bank robbery suppression program “safe” the preventive aspect and “catch” the proactive partnership with law enforcement to aide in the apprehension of the robber.

    If you care to get a better sense of the program and if you are a banker looking for a shift in your security, NPR did a feature on Friday. You can listen to it on their web site, just click on the link “Day to Day” and scroll to the piece.

  15. #15 Dave Munger
    April 14, 2007

    Here’s the direct link to that story.

  16. #16 Gary
    April 15, 2007

    It seems like a well-needed innovative approach. It seems to recognize the fact that the typical robber may have planned differently and have different motivations than the organized groups. Instead of letting them define the situation entirely, the new approach provides personalization, making the robber more self-aware of the process and also gives them clear chances to reconsider. It should be more effective, especially with the first-time, impulsive thieves. I would guess there is a similar need for some innovation in dealing with a more organized group. Glad to hear the good guys are creative too.

  17. #17 Don
    April 15, 2007

    This isn’t all that new. This technique has been used in retail for years. Going up to the dodgy individual and kill em with kindness has a couple of results. It lets them know that that the store is aware of their presence, and makes them uncomfortable enough to leave.

    Most bankrobberies, contrary to what you’d see on tv, do not want hostages or giant gun battles. They want the money as quickly and quietly as possible so they can get out of there without being noticed/stoppped.

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