Child's Prank Closes D.C. Banks

Bank customers, across from the White House in Washington, Monday, April 15, 2002, are greeted with a sign which reads the bank is closed because of a bomb threat. The FBI warned banks in the nation's capital of a bomb threat Monday, and several downtown branches closed temporarily. AP

Many bank branches in the nation's capital closed Monday after the FBI warned of a bomb threat.

Washington police received a telephone call from the Netherlands on Sunday, saying that a bomb would explode "at a national bank in the center of Washington, D.C." at noon Monday, according to a memo the FBI distributed to banks. The hour passed without incident.

Authorities didn't order banks to shut down, but many decided to temporarily shut branches as a precaution. They planned to reopen Tuesday.

By late afternoon, Dutch public prosecutor spokesman Wim de Bruin said the threat was a prank by a 13-year old Dutch boy. "He admitted that he had sent the threat from his mobile telephone," de Bruin said.

Charges had not been filed by late Monday afternoon.

Despite the bank closings, customers were still able to get cash at ATMs and conduct other transactions over the Internet and over the telephone or visit branches just outside Washington. That helped minimize disruptions, bank representatives said.

Analysts didn't foresee much economic impact.

"There are so many options available to consumers and to banks to carry out normal transactions," said Sung Won Sohn, chief economist for Wells Fargo.

The FBI told banks that it didn't have "reason to assign a high degree of credibility" to the telephoned bomb threat. They were told because of "the specificity of the information provided concerning the type of target facility, date and time of the alleged detonation."

Against this backdrop, Riggs closed its 34 branches in the district a little after 11 a.m. "Safety for our customers and employees was our utmost concern," said spokesman Mark Hendrix.

Other banks that temporarily closed branches included Bank of America, Wachovia and SunTrust. A sign at an Eagle Bank branch read, "Temporarily closed due to emergency."

The Treasury Department was monitoring the matter, said spokesman Rob Nichols.

Neither banking regulators nor industry officials could quantify how much business, if any, was lost. Because the closings were geographically isolated and banks have extensive backup systems, the health of the nation's banking system wasn't hurt, analysts and regulators said.

The threat came as the local police force braces for the annual meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank later this week, as well as a meeting of Group of Seven finance ministers, a conference of federal judges and several protest marches.

Assistant Washington Police Chief Terry Gainer told Reuters the bomb threat could add to the force's headaches in more ways than one.

"We hope that it doesn't spawn copy cats. This is very time consuming and I think it augurs in favor of what terrorism is trying to do," Gainer said.

"If someone sees they can get us jumping through hoops then idiots will do that let alone terrorists. So then you're trying to deal with all the protest groups we have in the city and the rallies and the terrorist threats and your normal run-of-the-mill yahoos."
  • Lloyd Vries

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