Jesse James they are not: There was the one who stepped up to the bank counter at a Dedham Stop & Shop, demanded money, and then stepped outside to make his escape in the back of a taxicab. A South Boston robber got an unpleasant surprise when a dye pack in his loot bag exploded, leaving the rain-soaked streets littered with money. Then there was the man who arrived at Somerset's Citizens Union Bank dressed as an elderly woman, complete with heavy facial makeup, and another who simply painted his face blue.
These are just some in an explosion of bank heists in and around Boston lately. In January, 30 occurred in the Boston area and another six in surrounding communities such as Westford, New Bedford, and Easton - more than in the whole state during the first three months of 2007. On a single day, Jan. 22, four banks were robbed in the area. A few were robbed twice within weeks.
The FBI's Boston Bank Robbery Task Force has responded to 16 robberies this month, 50 percent more than during February 2007.
"We have been busy, it's fair to say that," FBI spokeswoman Gail A. Marcinkiewicz said Friday.
Nobody is sure what is at the root of the crime spike. Thefts of all kinds tend to increase when the economy goes bad, but crime in general is down in Boston, making the recent jump more puzzling. Robberies last month other than those at banks dropped 16 percent compared with January 2007, while larcenies declined 20 percent from last year.
"There isn't really a rhyme or reason to it," said Special Agent Jason Costello, who is on the FBI's Boston Bank Robbery Task Force. "Around the holidays you expect to see a rise, but it doesn't always."
With their fortress-like vaults, security cameras, silent alarms, and dye packs, banks might seem curious targets for thieves. In fact, bank robbers are some of the most often caught criminals and because the heists are a federal crime, the penalties are usually stiff. About 60 percent of bank robberies were solved nationwide in 2005, compared with about a quarter of other robbery cases and 12 percent of burglary cases.
But crime specialists say the people behind the counters of convenience stores and other businesses are more likely to fight back, whereas bank employees are taught to be calm in such situations and to hand over money. In 2006, there was violence in just 4 percent of bank robberies nationwide.
"People who work in banks are trained to be cooperative," said Thomas Nolan, an associate professor of criminal justice at Boston University and former Boston police lieutenant. "They want to minimize risk to personal safety."
Long romanticized by the likes of Bonnie and Clyde, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and John Dillinger, the vast majority of bank heists these days are perpetrated by drug addicts desperate for their next fix, law enforcement officials said. For them, passing a note to a teller is easier than smashing the window of a car or storming into a convenience store.
"It's the way to get the largest amount of cash in the least confrontational manner," Nolan said.
Passing notes and using verbal demands are by far the favored techniques of bank robbers, according to the FBI statistics. Weapons were threatened in almost half of robberies but were shown in only 26 percent of cases.
Law enforcement observers said another factor that increasingly attracts robbers to banks is the declining prominence of cash in a world where credit and debit cards are used for everyday transactions. That means sticking up a retail store or a person on the street does not yield the reward it would have a decade ago. In words attributed to infamous bank robber Willie Sutton, thieves go where the money is.
But that does not mean they are smart. In December a man was arrested after trying to hold up a Dorchester bank, not realizing there was a police officer behind him.
Costello has seen his share of incompetent bank robbers in the three years he has been on the Bank Robbery Task Force. There was the man who wrote his demand note on the back of a court summons - with his name and address - and left it with the teller. One man left a "bomb" that turned out to be dirty laundry with his name stenciled on the shirts. Another robbed a bank dressed as a tree, and one left a trail of dye-stained money that led to his neighborhood.
"He'd left a note for his roommates in his apartment saying if he wasn't home, he was probably in jail because he went and robbed a bank," Costello said.
Since many bank robbers use their loot to support their drug habits, bank robbing becomes something of a habit too, making them some of the easiest criminals to catch, law enforcement officials said. Suspects in 19 of last month's heists have already been apprehended.
Boston's Angel Robles, 33, was arrested Jan. 30 in connection with a December robbery of a
And FBI officials are on the lookout for the blue-faced man who held up the Citizens Bank on Boylston Street Jan. 19. When he returned on Jan. 30 to rob the bank again, employees recognized him and he fled, taking a taxi to a Bank of America and robbing it instead. He allegedly struck again Feb. 6.
"It's a crime of repeat offenders," said Bruce Spitzer, spokesman for the Massachusetts Bankers Association. "They keep robbing until they get caught."
Tania deLuzuriaga can be reached at email@example.com.