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Originally published Saturday, January 5, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Good service scares off bank robbers, FBI says

The state's biggest drop in bank robberies in nearly 20 years isn't being attributed to fancy new security technology, but to enthusiastic...

Seattle Times staff reporter

The state's biggest drop in bank robberies in nearly 20 years isn't being attributed to fancy new security technology, but to enthusiastic handshakes and smiles.

Nearly 100 fewer banks were robbed in the state last year compared with 2006, said the Seattle FBI, which credits its program designed to train bank employees to be nice to would-be robbers.

FBI Special Agent Larry Carr says the training program called "Safecatch" — developed 2 ½ years ago with First Mutual Bank and later launched among regional banks — teaches bank personnel to unnerve potential robbers with good customer service.

By focusing attention in the guise of good customer service on all who enter a bank, Carr says, bank employees can unnerve robbers, who generally try to remain as anonymous as possible when approaching a teller.

The program also trains bank tellers how to respond after a robbery has occurred. Because many bank robbers are repeat offenders, arresting one can prevent several robberies, he said.

Washington state's banking industry lost more than $700,000 in 176 robberies in the state in 2007, according to statistics released Friday by the FBI. It was the first time in 20 years that Washington, a longtime hotbed for bank robberies, had fewer than 200 bank robberies, according to the Seattle FBI.

"We implement this strategy, and numbers go to a 20-year low," Carr said. "Is it a coincidence?"

Bank of America, which started the program last year, had fewer than half the robberies in 2007 it had the year prior, Carr said.

Washington ranked 11th among the nation's total bank robberies in 2007, dropping from fourth in 2006. The state with the most robberies last year was California, with 801, Carr said.

Seattle recorded the most bank robberies in the state last year with 42, followed by Vancouver with 13 and Tacoma with 12.

The vast majority of bank robberies in Washington were carried out by men. The majority of bank robbers in this region are heroin users, and many are transient, Carr said. Two assaults occurred during 2007's bank robberies, and a weapon was displayed in 18 instances.

More than 20 banks participate in the Safecatch program, the FBI said.

Christina Siderius: 206-464-2112 or csiderius@seattletimes.com

Seattle Times staff reporter Jennifer Sullivan contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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