Bank Robbery's Risk-Reward Ratio - OZY | A Modern Media Company


Because the smarter criminals who have moved on to greener pastures already know it: Bank robbery is a lousy way to make a living.

By Eugene S. Robinson

Though the details remain sketchy as to whether it was a robbery — stealing when people are there — or a burglary — stealing when they are not, the first U.S. bank robbery of note was recorded on March 19, 1831, and involved a theft from the City Bank of New York in the sum of $245,000.

While that was a substantial amount in 1831 dollars, the prospect of easily acquired ill-gotten gains has dimmed as the years have passed. Despite Hollywood’s insistence on its glamour, bank robbery as a profession has taken some serious shots in the modern age. How serious? 

According to The Billfold’s Willy Staley, today “only an idiot would rob a bank.”

FBI statistics from the last year of completed data, 2011, show that over the eight preceding years, the number of bank robberies across the United States dropped from around 7,500 per year to only 5,000 in 2011. The delta in cash money terms? Down from $77 million to $38 million in terms of the aggregate amount of money stolen per year. According to The Wall Street Journal, there was another sharp decline in 2012, with fewer than 3,870 bank robberies that year, using the same FBI data. 

Need some perspective? In 1991 Americans saw almost 9,400 of their banks robbed.

The reasons are several, according to experts like Don Coker, who points to better bank security, barriers at teller stations, exterior cameras, harsher criminal penalties and the most galling of all for the erstwhile bank robber: the money’s just no longer there.

In 2009, the FBI statistics show that:

An average bank heist netted around 


Better than the average take for non-bank-related robberies, which was about $1,200, but still perhaps not enough to make it worth a criminal’s while. But the troubles don’t stop there — you need to factor in the plight of cash the world over: inflation. Says Staley, “As you move through the history of notable bank and armored car robberies, you can see the dollar’s value diminish before your eyes.”

D’oh. That means that what you spent your ill-gotten $4,000 on in 2009 — maybe guns, masks and more bullets — would today cost you roughly $4,442. 

So where does the enterprising thief go when what he desires — easy money — is not that easy to grab at a bank counter?

Straight to the heart of where the real money is passing hands: online. The estimated annual cost of computer crimes — phishing, identity theft and so on — is presently at over $100 billion, and that’s for the U.S. alone. So, the dramatic and cinematic form of felony that jumps counters and beats it out of there double time might be passé, even if stealing will never go out of style.

This piece was originally published 9/12/14 and was updated as of 11/2/14. 

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