Security boosted after heist streak

Bandits sporting fedoras and wigs, speeding off on bikes and in getaway cars: San Mateo banks have seen it all this year — and it’s only March.

An increase in bank robberies in the city over the last year has led to banks and police beefing up security measures. Until recently, San Mateo banks typically fell victim to four or fewer bank robberies per year. But last year, there were eight attempted bank robberies, and so far this year, there have been four, according to San Mateo police Lt. Mike Brunicardi.

Tam Nguyen, assistant manager of the Wells Fargo branch that was struck by a robber in a fedora Monday, said robberies tend to be traumatic for bank staff.

“Of course, getting robbed, in a bank or anywhere else, is a scary situation.” he said. “I believe our teller was really shaken up, but she’s OK.”

San Mateo isnot alone. In January, the FBI reported that the Bay Area had seen more bank robberies — from 176 in 2006 to 207 last year.

However, other cities in San Mateo County, such as South San Francisco, Millbrae and Burlingame, said they haven’t seen such an increase.

Brunicardi said it’s impossible to know precisely why San Mateo would be a target of bank robberies, or why robberies might have increased from last year. However, he said, it’s possible the nation’s recent economic downturn could be a factor.

San Mateo has a greater number of banks than other cities in the county, which means there is more opportunity for criminal activity, Brunicardi said.

Patti Hansen, a public affairs specialist with the FBI, said it’s too soon to say whether the increase is a trend.

“If this rate continued through the next several months, then we would probably take a second look at it,” she said.

The city’s banks and law enforcement officials, however, won’t be waiting that long torespond. Brunicardi said local banks have been taking more security measures, while police are increasing patrols near banks.

Banks typically don’t talk about security measures they take to protect their branches from robberies, but Marilyn Baum, manager of Bank of the West’s San Mateo branch, said her institution is not ignoring the recent upsurge.

“We make sure our employees know what to do during robberies,” she said. “But I try not to scare them too much. We don’t want them to be so petrified that it’s uncomfortable to work.”

kworth@examiner.com

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