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Atlanta: Bank heist capital of nation

  • Story Highlights
  • Atlanta surpasses LA, Philadelphia as city with most bank heists
  • FBI says it's the result of rising violent crime and increased number of banks
  • FBI: Expect more bank robberies around holidays
  • Bank official says most robbers get away with just $2,000 to $3,000
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By Tristan Smith
CNN
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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- It was an image that got the nation talking: Two giggling young women in oversized sunglasses robbing a bank. The "Barbie Bandits" helped their hometown earn the dubious distinction as the nation's bank robbery capital.

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Here one of the so-called "Barbie Bandits" is captured on surveillance video at a surburban Atlanta bank.

Atlanta's FBI field division topped Los Angeles in reporting the most bank heists, with 350 for the 12 months ending September 30, 2007, according to the FBI, which annually names areas most prone to bank robberies.

The Los Angeles area was No. 2 with 338 heists, followed by Philadelphia with 316. Just Thursday, two suspects overpowered a security guard at an Atlanta, Georgia, bank, took his gun, robbed the bank and fled with money in hand, police said. Eventually, police shot one of the suspects in an exchange of gunfire. Two more armed bank robberies took place in metro Atlanta Friday.

The FBI says violent crime is up across the nation, especially in major metro areas like Atlanta. So it's no surprise Atlanta has become a prime target for bank robberies, FBI spokesman Stephen Emmett told CNN. Video Watch Hotlanta or Heistlanta? »

"This goes hand in hand with those figures," Emmett said.

Atlanta's rapid growth over the last decade has also been a factor. A recent Atlanta Business Chronicle article reported that metro Atlanta has 26 more banks than in all of North Carolina -- roughly one bank for every 3,500 people in the region. See photos of bank heists in metro Atlanta »

"We would attribute a lot of that [bank robberies] to the growth and the fact that the banking industry has matched that growth with an increase in bank branches throughout the area," Emmett said.

Bank heists

The following are the top metro areas and the number of bank heists this year:
• Atlanta: 350
• Los Angeles 338
• Philadelphia 316
• Dallas 297
• Boston 255
Source: FBI

Atlanta's rise in bank heists comes just as Los Angeles has aggressively countered once out-of-control bank robberies. Los Angeles has gone from more than 500 bank robberies in the mid-2000s to this year's 338, the FBI stats show.

According to the FBI, its Atlanta field division reported 350 bank robberies in the last year -- the most notorious of which were the "Barbie Bandits" and "Grandpa Bandit" robberies. The FBI says 122 of the heists were armed robberies, or robberies where a weapon was visibly used.

Emmett said many more of the robberies were what law enforcement officers classify as "note jobs" -- where a robber gestures as if he or she has a gun on them in a demand note handed over to the teller. Also factored into the total number of robberies were ATM heists and a record nine armored car robberies.

Those armored car robberies are particularly disturbing to Emmett. "Anyone that would confront an armored car courier knowing that he's already armed and in somewhat of a defensive posture, that mindset is very troubling for law enforcement," he said.

While Emmett said there is no "typical" bank robber, he said he has seen some trends, most notably that they are often people battling drug addictions. He also said bank robbers are often repeat offenders.

Two recent high-profile cases in Atlanta seem to confirm that. Two women dubbed the "Barbie Bandits" were arrested after working with a bank employee to rob a Bank of America in the Atlanta suburb of Acworth. They both later admitted to police to having drug addiction problems. Recently apprehended 69-year-old Bobby Joe Phillips, dubbed the "Grandpa Bandit," is suspected to have robbed seven banks in Tennessee and the Atlanta area and had a criminal history.

Emmett says typically very little money is taken in a bank heist. Joe Brannen, president of the Georgia Bankers Association, agrees, saying "the average is $2,000 to $3,000. It's not as big a payoff as most people think it is."

With the holidays in full swing, authorities are steeling themselves for a spate of bank robberies with robbers looking for quick holiday cash. "I would make the assumption that a large part of it is the increased [financial] pressures this time of year," said Brannen.

The FBI advises banks to be extra vigilant this time of year and to keep a close eye on jittery individuals donning gloves, hats and sunglasses.

But Brannen says profiling people like that can be problematic.

"We've chosen not to go there. Here in Atlanta, lots of people wear head coverings for religious purposes. This is a free and open society," he said.

He said customers want to come into a bank unimpeded -- that 99.9 percent are just customers, not bank robbers. Brannen says banks do all they can to balance convenience for their customers and the bank's need for security.

"There is no good, magic solution." he says.

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Emmett said as long as metro Atlanta continues to grow, so will the number of bank robberies.

"This is something that is part of growth. We have more banks. We have more people. We're a big city now." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Rusty Dornin contributed to this report.

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