Bank heists rise as economy falls

In what authorities are calling a sign of the economic times, the number of bank robberies in San Francisco and San Mateo counties is rapidly escalating — and investigators do not expect the trend to stop anytime soon.

Through May, there have been 46 bank robberies in San Francisco and San Mateo counties this year, compared with 29 during the first five months of 2007, a 59 percent jump, according to the FBI.

Throughout the Bay Area, there have been 124 bank robberies through May compared with 87 in the first five months of 2007, FBI officials said Thursday.

Local police said that historically, property crimes such as bank robberies seem to increase as the economy worsens. With record gas prices as well as swelling food and medical costs, more locals could be turning to crime to solve economic woes, police said.

“It always seems to be that when the economy is bad, crime is up, and bank robberies in particular seem to correlate with the economy,” Burlingame police Cmdr. Mike Matteucci said.

The Peninsula has been hardest hit recently by bank robberies. On June 7, a man robbed a Washington Mutual bank in San Mateo, according to authorities.

One day earlier, police said, a middle-aged black woman robbed a U.S. Bank in Belmont. The heist occurred only a few weeks after she allegedly robbed another U.S. Bank in Burlingame, a city that fell prey to three bank robberies in one week in May.

In late March, Millbrae saw two bank stickups within three days.

This year’s string of Peninsula robberies follows a flurry of heists from June to December of last year. By The Examiner’s count, there were at least 14 bank robberies within that period.

Banks and police said they are using plenty of new technology to thwart bank robbers, many of whom are caught on surveillance cameras.

“The photo technology has vastly improved,” said Barry Holtzclaw, a Bay Area spokesman for Comerica Bank.

Despite the recent jump in incidents, police are advising residents to continue banking without fear of becoming a victim.

“Don’t be paranoid; just be aware of your surroundings,” said Lt. Mike Brunicardi of San Mateo, whose city has been hit with seven bank robberies already this year after having eight last year and four in 2006.

The level of fear is likely highest for tellers, who Holtzclaw said are given robbery training their first day on the job at Comerica and are told to comply with the robber’s demands.

The bank also offers a team of employees who can help tellers cope with anxiety.

mrosenberg@sfexaminer.com

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