On June 30, normally a day when salaried employees look forward to their monthly paychecks, the Millenium Post reported an unsuccessful attempt at robbing a bank in Kolkata’s upscale New Market area. The robbers who managed to break into the branch failed to cut open the vault, only succeeding in opening a box of coins which they rightly refused to take.
Clearly, the handiwork of a few incompetent amateurs looking to make a quick buck. The kind that give bank robbers a bad name. After all, there’s nothing more fascinating than a daring bank robbery undertaken with finesse and meticulous planning.
Banks are robbed all the time and with the world in the grip of a severe economic winter, it is a fair bet that there will be a few more of such attempts. Just last week, there were reports of a robbery at People's Bank in Baltimore while closer home The Tribune reported that two unidentified men looted Rs 4.8 lakh at gunpoint from an all-women branch of the Punjab National Bank (PNB) in Mohali. Some years ago, burglars had dug a wide tunnel in a bid to rob the lockers inside PNB's Gohana branch in Sonipat.
PNB, of course, is no stranger to bank heists, with men like Nirav Modi and Mehul Choksi having left the bank poorer by thousands of crores.
Indeed, their acts show how the day of the bank robber is long gone. All those breath-taking sequences in movies like The Italian Job and Heat or Set It Off are just that, cinematic imagination. For some real inspiration, one needs to go back in time, to the era when bank robberies were chronicled and the robbers were bad-boy icons. Thus, in 1911, the Bonnot Gang was the talk of town in France for a series of bank robberies. Among the burgled banks was Societe Generale, two of whose branches were robbed within months. Significantly, the bank’s website notes the event among the key milestones in its 150-year journey: “This time, they killed two of the bank's employees, but it was to be their last bank robbery, since the gang members were all either killed or arrested just a few weeks later.”
Some of the legends who perfected the act went on to write well-received memoirs, none more famous than the one by Willie Sutton. One of America’s most notorious con artists, he did not shed a drop of blood while robbing nearly 100 banks and escaping from three of the country’s most secure prisons. Asked why he robbed banks, Sutton in his book Where the Money Was: The Memoirs of a Bank Robber gives the classic reply, “Because that's where the money is.”
Who would question that? The big heists in history have yielded rich dividends. In a daring robbery in 2005, robbers tunnelled into the Banco Central in Fortaleza, Brazil, to steal 164 million Brazilian real, while in 2007, bank guards ran off with $300 million worth of funds from the Dar Es Salaam Bank in Baghdad.
Over time though, banks have become more secure and the risk-reward ratio, never loaded in favour of the perpetrators, has turned even more adverse. Following the financial crisis of 2008, a spate of gun-point robberies took place in banks across the US which then acted to make their premises much more secure by using exploding dye packs in cash bundles and bullet-resistant glass. In addition, improved surveillance and tracking technologies and greater cooperation among financial institutions led to most robbers being apprehended.
In this era of cyber crime when online thieves hack into people’s credit cards and bank accounts to rob them of millions, the old-fashioned gun-toting bandit who slipped a note to the teller, your money or your life, is a bit of an anachronism. Indeed, in the hierarchy of criminal minds, the bank robber is low-life, lacking in the kind of brains that enabled a ring of hackers to steal over a billion dollars from 100 banks in 30 countries by hacking into the bank’s servers.
It almost makes you wish for the return of the old fashioned gun-toting hacker. What’s more, data hacks are far worse than physical loot for a listed company. According to a piece in XDnet, Wall Street does not look upon them kindly and the public disclosure of a data breach can lead to the average share price of a company falling by 7.27 percent on disclosure, with low share value and growth underperformance a reality for years afterwards.(Sundeep Khanna is a senior journalist. Views are personal.)