While cyberthreats to financial institutions—hacked databases, skimmed ATM cards, identity theft, poor cloud security—increasingly have commanded public attention in recent years, physical security remains important because of direct and destructive threats to people and facilities.
That means credit unions must stretch their dollars to cover both cybersecurity and physical security.
“The degree of different threats affects how credit unions spend security dollars,” says Mary Pifer, vice president of international marketing and product management at 3SI Security Systems, a CUNA Strategic Services alliance provider. “Physical security is like any other threat—it moves and changes.
“The biggest recent change in physical security,” she says, “is dealing with the technological transformation of branches—more machines and more open layouts. This means fewer tellers and a greater dependence on cash-dispensing machines, which become the natural target for robbers.”
But open branch interior spaces offer some benefits. “Everybody can be observed and the presence of cash-dispensing machines can thwart a robbery,” says Michael A. Petrone, risk management consultant at CUNA Mutual Group. “The robber knows tellers can dispense only a relatively small amount of cash at a time. The rate at which tellers’ dispensers can dispense cash can be slowed, too.”
Despite great concern with cybersecurity, credit unions haven’t diverted money from physical security, according to Petrone.
“Employees remain credit unions’ most valuable asset, so protecting them is a priority,” he says. “Robbery remains the greatest threat. Extortion and kidnapping are dangers, and a robber might take a credit union employee or member hostage. And robbers can target ATMs as well, stealing from an employee servicing an ATM, or from a member using the machine.”
Why do robbers continue to plague credit unions? “They’re reluctant to rob, say, a convenience store because they might only get a small amount of cash while facing a counter person who may be armed,” says Petrone. “On the other hand, the financial industry trains employees to not resist, which lowers the threat of violence.”
Tools and tactics
The most common antirobbery options include GPS units and smoke-and-dye packs embedded in cash, Pifer indicates. “Ink-staining technology has been successfully addressing robberies for over 40 years, and remains a useful and effective device,” she says.
The trend toward smaller, more accessible machines has produced tempting targets, Pifer says.
“One interesting method of getting to an ATM’s cash cache is using explosive gas,” she says. “You can see demonstrations on YouTube. Our counter-move is a detector that senses the explosive gas and emits a neutralizing gas. This act is more prevalent in Europe than the U.S., but experts are sure the trend will arrive here eventually.”
Fortified ATMs can’t resist every possible attack, from break-ins to actually ripping out the machine and carrying it away, Pifer acknowledges.
And criminals targeting ATMs face less risk of serious jail time because law enforcement “usually charges ATM theft as a misdemeanor rather than a felony, based on the reasoning the theft doesn’t threaten or harm people,” Pifer says.
But many technology improvements, such as audio alarms—where offsite law enforcement officials can listen during a robbery—aid prosecutorial efforts, Petrone notes. “Also, cameras activated by motion sensors are much better capable now of providing sharp pictures of intruders or burglars,” he says.
Robbers can take a sophisticated approach, such as ordering a teller to not insert a dye marker or GPS while handing over the money. Some thieves wear scanners on their belts, allowing them to eavesdrop on police dispatches.
“To combat extortion or kidnapping, we recommend no single person has keys to all vital functions— doors, alarms, cameras, and the safe,” Petrone says. “Also, we recommend time locks on safes or vaults, which prevent anyone from opening them until a set time.”
Robbers typically will case a target five or six times, according to Petrone, providing observant staff an opportunity to thwart a potential robbery attempt.
“Train employees to note if a person looks suspicious,” Petrone says. “Cameras can be programmed to record at the time and day that matches a suspicious person’s recurring presence.”
Asking staff to approach and make eye contact with suspicious visitors allows them to snap a mental picture of that person. Employees should detail suspicious activity in a log.
As a training exercise, Petrone suggests credit unions instruct an individual to enter a branch and behave in a manner that arouses suspicion, then gauge employees’ response.
One tell-tale sign of an imminent heist, according to Petrone, is an out-of-state car that backs into its space and remains parked far longer than necessary for a customary branch visit.
“Smart robbers won’t commit a crime within 100 miles of their hometown, as a means of avoiding media exposure among people who know them,” he says.
Of course, not all robbers behave predictably. Often, people with drug addictions and those under the influence spontaneously decide to rob a credit union.
Credit unions that use teller cash machines or recyclers instead of a traditional teller counter “can handle this by having a small teller drawer with $1,000 in it,” says Petrone. “That’s enough to satisfy the robber and prevent potential violence if he or she thinks the teller is stalling or pretending to not have money.”
Vendors offer value
“We view customers as partners, and we understand how credit unions allocate their money and make decisions,” says Pifer. “One aspect of our expertise is our account executives’ geographical knowledge: We know what’s going on in a territory, including crime patterns and best practices.”
Petrone begins a relationship with credit unions by performing an hour-long risk management assessment. “We start outside, looking at sight lines of the building, and ask questions: Can people see in? Where are exits and entrances? Can robbers hide behind bushes or trees?”
Other questions CUNA Mutual Group poses include:
• How do the doors lock?
• Have you posted height markers to estimate a robber’s height?
• Have you posted requests to remove dark glasses?
• Is a teller station too close to the entrance?
• Could a robber jump over the ADA-accessible station?
• Does the credit union have distress codes that all employees know?
• Does the credit union have bait money and die packs on hand?
• Are cash recyclers programmed to deliver a set amount of cash that’s unattractive to a robber in terms of “risk in/money out”?
“All employees should undergo training for dealing with a robbery,” Petrone says. “Our No. 1 goal is to keep employees safe. Money can be replaced—people can’t.”