Holdups here are poised to hit a new four-year high, according to FBI statistics.
While security experts say the only thing easier than robbing a bank is catching a bank robber, that isn't always the case. So far roughly half of the 27 bank robberies in the two counties reported since October are unsolved, according to the FBI.
Overall, bank robberies in Bucks and Montgomery counties have increased 9 percent since October 2010, according to FBI statistics. That's bucking a national trend of heists plummeting over the last decade. If the pace continues at a moderate rate this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, the two counties will exceed the 39 bank robberies reported in fiscal year 2010, a Philadelphia FBI supervisor said.
What is driving the uptick is a matter of speculation, security and law enforcement experts said.
The counties' proximity to Philadelphia - and convenient access to major roads - gives robbers fast getaway routes, said Joe Bushner, an FBI supervisor whose territory covers Montgomery and Bucks. Suspects may avoid banks near where they live since it increases the chance they'll be identified.
Also, robbing a bank is easier than ever. No weapon is necessary. The proliferation of bank branches in high-traffic places such as supermarkets also lets criminals conduct surveillance and examine escape routes with a greater chan ce of going unnoticed, Bushner added.
Security and law enforcement experts, including Bushner, strongly suspect that just a handful of criminals are behind the recent robbery wave here.
"All you need is a few extra serial guys and you just went up by 10, potentially," he said.
SMALL REWARD, BIG HIGH
Overall nationally, bank robberies have dropped at a rate faster than other crimes over the last 20 years. Last year, 3,870 bank robberies were committed, according to preliminary FBI data. That's down from more than 5,000 from a year earlier - and roughly half the number reported in 2004, according to recent FBI statistics.
Make no mistake, though, experts say, although losing popularity, bank robbery remains a more profitable crime than burglary or convenience store robberies.
The average take in a bank heist was a little more than $7,500 in 2011, according to the most recent FBI statistics available. In 89 percent of the 2011 robberies, a suspect escaped with money, and only 20 percent of the time some or all of it was recovered by authorities.
Another motivation to rob a bank may be that rarely are first-time offenders caught, according to a former FBI bank robbery expert. If they keep robbing banks, the odds of capture increase, but the FBI estimates an average of 40 percent of U.S. bank robberies are not solved.
Some law enforcement officials, though, believe serial robbers are likely behind some of the unsolved bank heists. But there isn't enough evidence to pursue charges against them when they're finally caught in connection with another one.
In Bucks and Montgomery counties, 38 percent of bank holdups committed in fiscal year 2012 remain open cases, according to the FBI.
"It is a high," added Robert McCrie, a professor of security management at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. "They beat the system with this crime."
Serial bank robbers are becoming more common, security experts say. The FBI believes that at least two serial bank robbers are responsible for most of the current bank heists in Bucks and Montgomery counties.
The FBI in Philadelphia believes the most recent Montgomery County heist committed June 19 at a Wells Fargo Bank in Lower Moreland is the same suspect who robbed a Sovereign Bank in Cheltenham on June 13 and May 28, as well as two other Philadelphia banks last month.
The suspect descriptions in each case were similar including that he wore the same Nike hoodie, similar face coverings and used the same gun in four of the five robberies, an FBI spokeswoman said.
At least four unsolved holdups in Bucks and Montgomery counties since last year are attributed to the work of an armed gunman who frequently wears a jacket and tie, and ski mask or pillow case with eye holes cut out.
Two bank robbers convicted last year - Albert Jannett of Bensalem and Fawzi Atra of Northampton County - were responsible for nine robberies last year, including ones in Bucks and Montgomery counties.
"You can't just do one. If you do one, you'll continue," said William Rehder, a former bank robbery expert for the FBI. "Bank robbery is an addictive crime. All this is very, very exciting. When they actually score the money, the feeling of exhilaration is equal or better than the high they get from some of the narcotics."
McCrie has studied bank robbery and those who commit it for 30 years. He says it has evolved from a largely violent crime to a more passive one, and more than half the time a weapon is never displayed. Even the number of robbers who threatened to use a weapon has dropped from 3,431 in 2003 to 2,331 in 2011 nationally.
But the crime has pitfalls. The people most likely to be killed during a bank robbery are not customers, staff or police, but the robber, according to recent FBI statistics. The last bank customer killed in a holdup was in 2003; the last time a bank employee was killed was 2008.
"(Bank robbers are) losers really. It's an irrational act," McCrie added. "They can commit several crimes successfully, and if they continue they are absolutely going to be apprehended."
Bank robberies last experienced a surge in the 1970s, a time of great social unrest in the United States when the serious and violent crime rates were increasing, McCrie said. The trend continued into the 1980s when a rise in drug addiction continued fueling a need for fast cash, he said.
By the 1990s, frazzled financial institutions started taking steps to make themselves less desirable targets.
Banks installed bullet resistant barriers at teller windows and access control units that limited the number of customers in the bank, they made wider use of dye packs, implemented no hats and sunglasses policies and stationed customer greeters near entrances. Tellers were trained to immediately hand over the money, a strategy aimed at getting the robber out of the bank quickly.
The strategies worked somewhat. U.S. bank robberies dropped from a peak of nearly 9,400 in 1991 to 7,465 in 2003, according to FBI statistics.
More recently, technology has played a key role in protecting banks and capturing suspects, said Doug Johnson, vice president of risk management police for the American Bankers Association in Washington, D.C.
Today more than half of the nation's bank branches participate in an American Bankers Association's Bank Capture system, a database that allows financial institutions to report, share and analyze robbery and other crime information in real time, Johnson said.
Better computer technology also has made distributing suspect photos and information easier and faster. More banks are investing in nearly undetectable tracking devices.
Advances in high-resolution imaging have allowed law enforcement to more quickly identify - and apprehend - bank robbery suspects often within hours or days after the crime.
Two of the three robbery suspects apprehended in Bucks County cases since January were identified after their photos were released to the media, police said.
Michael Riccitello, 56, of Trenton, who is charged in a March 23 Falls robbery and an April 13 attempted robbery in Morrisville, was developed as a suspect after a friend recognized his picture in a local newspaper, police said.
Another deterrent that law enforcement frequently attributes for the decline involves changes in federal sentencing guidelines. Unlike other crimes, bank robbery suspects can be tried in both state and federal court without risk of double jeopardy.
And newer federal guidelines leave judges little leeway in sentencing, unless they write a separate opinion on why they are straying from the guidelines, Rehder said. Before 1987, federal judges determined the length of a defendant's prison sentence, which could have ranged from five to 20 years, and convicted bank robbers could have been eligible for parole after serving only one-third of their sentence.
The changes also increased penalties for using a weapon during a bank robbery and prior criminal history.
As a result, most convicted bank robbers now serve more prison time and at least 80 percent of their sentence before parole eligibility, Rehder said.
"You'll get the money," he added, "but you'll also get jail time."
Information from: Bucks County Courier Times, http://www.phillyburbs.com