Robbers Banking On War On Terror

Revelers run on Estafeta Street during the third run beside a banner with El Ventorrillo fighting bulls at the San Fermin festival in Pamplona, northern Spain, Thursday, July 9, 2009.
AP Photo/Alvaro Barrientos

Last year was busy for a gang of bank robbers in Atlanta. They knocked over two banks.

One man was less dramatic but more prolific. He robbed six banks in two weeks.

If tellers seem a little nervous these days, it might be because bank robberies are increasing steeply all across the country, up more than 65 percent last year in Boston alone. And that rise could be attributed to the ongoing war on terrorism, reports CBS News Correspondent Richard Schlesinger.

"We had one branch in Boston that was robbed three times in a three-week period," says Paul DeStefano, the vice president for security at Atlantic Bank.

Two of those three robberies were committed by the same man.

"Two weeks later that same individual came back," says DeStefano. "It's a good thing he didn't run into the middle guy."

In the midst of this up-tick in stick-ups, the FBI has announced it will have to reduce the amount of time it spends on bank robberies. The war on terrorism is taking a lot of manpower and is now the bureau's top priority. So except in some special cases, local police may be asked to take up the slack.

In North Carolina, FBI special assistant Vic O'Korn has had to re-assign agents who used to work bank robberies.

"They won't see two or three FBI agents responding to bank robberies," says O'Korn. "It will be just one."

Before Sept. 11, the FBI Charlotte office had approximately 13 agents working bank robberies. Now, it's down to eight, with the other five assigned to counter-terrorism.

The FBI will still investigate violent bank robberies, but most robberies are non-violent and involve little more than a threatening note. The FBI is hoping local police can chase down those robbers. That worries some bankers.

"If you take the FBI out of the bank robbery investigative equation you lose the availability of their resources," says DeStefano. "And their resources are among the best in the country."

As the FBI pulls back, the banking industry has started to notice a troubling trend: people like Richard Chayer and his co-worker David Plourde chasing down robbers themselves. They work for a tire company and trapped a suspect they saw fleeing a bank in Springfield, Mass.

"He got about 200 yards, that's it," says Plourde.

Armed with just their tools, the men held the suspect until the police arrived.

"The first thing I could find was a hammer," says Chaver.

The FBI and the banks discourage volunteers like Chaver and Plourde, but with a war on terrorism to fight, some battles in the war on crime might have to be fought with new troops.

Rich Schlesinger