Why banks want to see your pretty face

A bank sign

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: Late last summer Ben Bernanke's wife had her purse stolen from a coffee shop outside Washington. The Fed chairman did exactly what you're supposed to do: he canceled his credit cards, told his banks about it too. Still, a couple of days later a woman started cashing checks from the Bernankes' account. Today that woman was arraigned in federal court in Miami as part of an identity theft ring. Prosecutors say the group sent women wearing wigs into banks to empty their victims' accounts in person.

I told you that so I can sell you this: In some banks now, it's all about seeing the real you. From Texas Public Radio, David Matin Davies reports.


DAVID MARTIN DAVIES: Walk into the Lewisville State Bank, just outside of Dallas, and there's a display of memorabilia from the Lewisville High football team, the Fighting Farmers.

And you'll see a big sign that asks bank customers to remove their hats and sunglasses. It's an effort to fight crime.

MIKE POPE: I'm glad you noticed it. Because that's why its there. Because we want it to be blatantly obvious when people come in.

Mike Pope is the manager of the Lewisville State Bank. He says his bank hasn't fallen victim to robberies and the sign keeps it that way. Pope says, so far, his bank customers have been happy to comply.

POPE: We're not trying to be the fashion police, so to speak. It's a matter of, hey, we need to be able to see their faces.

Banks across North Texas are part of a robbery prevention program sponsored by police departments. It's an idea supported by the FBI and it's spreading across the country.

Captain Kevin Deaver of the Lewisville Police says the signs help deter what's known as the "note job" robbery.

KEVIN DEAVER: They simply pass a note, get the money and then casually walk out of the bank. They try to be discreet in what they do. They try not draw attention to themselves.

The police then turn to the bank's surveillance cameras to zoom in on the bad guy. And in recent years those cameras have gotten a lot better.

DEAVER: What we used to get was a VCR tape that'd be recorded over 15,000 times and by the time they actually did get robbed the video is not worth anything. You know, it's so grainy you can't make anything out.

With high-definition video stored on a hard drive, the image of the suspect is sharp and clear. But put on a hat and that blocks the HD camera's view. Now the police are back to square one. Nevertheless, many banks are reluctant to ban the arresting attire.

DANNY GARZA: It's a little difficult to enforce.

Danny Garza is with the International Bank of Commerce based in South Texas. He says banks have better ways to catch a thief like moving the cameras to better angles. But more important, Garza says, the customer dress code would be bad for business.

GARZA: We're dealing in a business of convenience, and we don't want to inconvenience out customers in any way.

Garza says in the competitive world of today's banking, a friendly bank is likely to win more customers. But even Captain Deaver admits that some bank patrons may not be willing to shed the sombrero.

DEAVER: You wear a cap all day, and then you've got hat-hair. And people want to walk in that way.

For those people with hair issues, there's always the drive-through lane.

In Lewisville, Texas, I'm David Martin Davies for Marketplace.

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