Bank customer robberies

A senior Caricom official was the latest victim to be shot and robbed after withdrawing money from a bank. And the bank was the same Triumph branch of Republic Bank from which a contractor who was robbed had withdrawn a large sum of money only the day before, and from which a fish vendor had been trailed and then held up just the week before that.

Mr Eddy Brandon, the fisherman, had withdrawn $7 million from the bank, following which he was accosted, gun-butted and shot in the leg as he made his way home. He had related how he had spent almost two hours at the branch engaged in what should have been a simple transaction. After encountering various impediments, however, he decided to withdraw all the cash, although even then he had to wait the better part of an hour before the teller appeared with the money in a yellow envelope. He told this newspaper he was of the view that a bank employee must have been complicit in the robbery.

The sums involved in the cases of Caricom employee, Mr Lionel Persaud, and electrical contractor, Mr Bisnauth Terry Chan, were somewhat smaller: $264,000 in the first mentioned and $600,000 in the second. The modus operandi in all instances – and certainly there have been others not involving this particular branch – are very similar. The gangs who engage in these robberies – and given the number of vehicles involved, sometimes more than one car and/or motor cycle, these appear to be gangs – do not target ATM customers, since the withdrawal ceiling makes the pickings too small for a group.

As for identifying customers to target, there are many ways that can be done. In the larger branches with their long queues and seating accommodation, ‘spies’ could watch unnoticed, and even operate in shifts, so to speak, so they are not so easily picked out by the security cameras. And nowadays it hardly needs observing that a cellphone is a speedy form of communication. There will, of course, be instances where it is persons unconnected to a bank who are aware an individual is going to withdraw a substantial sum, and put something in place as a consequence. Certainly the victims in the recent Vryheids Lust $7.4 million robbery which occurred after they had left Citizens Bank thought inside knowledge of that kind had applied in their case.

In our edition last Sunday we reported Ms Michelle Johnson, Marketing and Communications Manager of Republic Bank as denying any collusion on the part of bank staff following the robbery committed on Mr Brandon. “A review was conducted and no evidence was found that supports the allegation,” she was quoted as saying. One can only wonder what she will say now.  Commissioner of Police Seelall Persaud, offered confirmation for Ms Johnson’s statements, saying that on the basis of the investigations so far undertaken by the Police Force, there is nothing to show that bank employees were in any way involved.

One would have thought that it is too early for Ms Johnson and the police to write off bank staff complicity so glibly. This could potentially happen at a variety of levels, including where there is CCTV inside the bank, something which paradoxically could even be used by the robbers. After three robberies of this type over a short space of time at Triumph, one would hope that both Republic Bank and the police would recognize that they have a particular problem at this location, and that insufficient work has been undertaken to get to the root of it.

And what is the police solution? We reported the Commissioner last Sunday as telling this newspaper, “Our biggest shot is intelligence.” He went on to say that the police have received a lot of information which had led to a number of persons being charged. “As soon as one group is arrested, it slows down,” he said, “and then after a while it picks up back again.”

Mr Persaud thought “the ultimate best practice” was working with civil society, religious leaders and the community, etc,  although to citizens this might sound more like the police sitting around waiting for intelligence to come in, something which will hardly redound to a feeling of security among bank customers. Surely the case of Triumph, invites some serious police slogwork, going over and over the video tape, among other things, to pick up oddities and find patterns, as well as the perusal of their own videotape along the East Coast to try and discern possible vehicles. Or don’t these government CCTV cameras work any longer? That aside, is it the case that one quick scan of the images suffices for the police in relation to tape searches from any location?

Apart from that, the Commissioner told Sunday Stabroek that the robbers target anyone whom they think is vulnerable − not, one might have thought, a stunning revelation from the general public’s point of view.

And then there is the standard response from the banks, the private sector and the police whenever these kinds of robberies occur: ie, we should be going plastic.  Ms Johnson took the opportunity, as she put it, “to encourage the use of available non-cash options to effect payments for goods and services.” For his part, Mr Persaud expressed the view that if it is possible that a transaction can conclude in the bank, then it should be done there. “If it’s a large transaction,” he went on, “you can use a manager’s cheque.” If that is not possible, his advice was to “think security” and maybe use a taxi or your own transportation. It might be remarked that neither of these latter two options have necessarily spared bank customers in the past, and a manager’s cheque is only applicable to a limited range of situations.

Head of the Private Sector Commission Edward Boyer had the practical suggestion (at least for business people and some contractors, perhaps) to use a security company when handling large sums. It is better, we reported him as saying, to spend “$10,000 than to lose $10 million.”

The idea that any society – even a developed country – can go cashless in the foreseeable future is unrealistic. Sweden was moving in that direction, and now many banks will not dispense or issue cash. Only last week the authorities were reported as becoming concerned, because the people who really need cash are, in the first instance, the poorest. They do not accumulate sufficient funds to operate in a plastic card world, or even open a bank account in many cases. If there is no cash, they cannot survive.

As for Guyana, in our environment at the present time it would simply be unimplementable. This is a low-wage economy, and many workmen get paid weekly, while others might get paid by the job. In all such instances as well as in a host of others where no regular job is available or the people are pensioners or for whatever other reason are simply poverty-stricken, the payees need cash because the wages or other money they receive is too small. Any contractor employing workmen, for example, would soon lose his workforce if he made it obligatory for them to have  bank accounts.

Rather than lecture us on the benefits of cashless transactions, perhaps the police and the banks should start working together to craft strategies to keep all customers – and their money − safe after they have drawn cash.

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