5 Things Movies Get Wrong About Bank Heists (From a Guard)
Hollywood loves a good heist. Other types of crime are generally frowned upon, but one guy we will always root for is the cool guy in Ray-Bans who hatches a brilliant scheme to break into a vault before retiring to a beach in Tahiti with his supermodel girlfriend. Maybe it appeals to the greedy, anarchistic side of us that admires the outlaw in theory but doesn't actually want to hurt anyone. Maybe it's the Ray-Bans. Whatever the case, I'm here to tell you it's all crap.
I guarded a branch of the Federal Reserve Bank, a popular target in movies like Die Hard With a Vengeance, and I can tell you with a fair degree of certainty that Ray Bannington the Third wouldn't make it to that beach in Tahiti. He wouldn't even make it out the door, because ...
Disguises Would Never Work
Our first example comes straight from the aforementioned Die Harderer, in which Gruber & Co. attack the Federal Reserve by dressing as the Village People. Simon himself lures a bank official right into his trap just by putting on a suit and head-faking security by saying, "Tell him Mr. Vanderflog is here." Totally real-sounding pseudonym, man -- guess Hans really did get the brains. Over and over, we see people in movies simply dressing up as painters or guards and being led right into the vault.
"I'll let you in, but you don't look like the usual vault plumbers ..."
Stop for a minute and think about that: You have to prove you're you just to deposit a check, right? Why are you letting yourself believe that security at these facilities is so apathetic that they'll let a guy in as long as he kinda looks like he belongs there?
First of all, we'd never let someone in just because they have a uniform. The uniforms go home with the employees, where they can be lost or sold. They're pants. Pants are not a qualification. What we have instead are tightly controlled ID cards that are checked in, checked out, and counted every night. Every store manager has a card that they scan in order to make the pick-up or drop-off, and then they sign it in a specific book. If you lose your ID by accident, it's an automatic termination.
If you "lose" your ID on purpose, it's an automatic incarceration.
From the front of the building to any room with money in it, there are about five mag-lock doors, and no one goes through them without an escort. Even if I personally know you as a fellow guard, if you're not scheduled to work that day, I can't let you in without an escort. If you're the president of the United States, you're not allowed in without an escort. That also means you have your identity verified and you're patted and wanded down. Which is nowhere near as sexy or as magical as it sounds.
Even in emergency situations, this procedure is absolutely unbendable. We had an issue once when an older employee had a heart attack in the vault, and we couldn't let the EMS guys in with their ambulance, so we had to help them get their stretcher into the vault and then walk them out the front door. Which meant we had to pat them down and wand them until they walked funny on the way in, and then again while they were leaving. All while our guy was having a heart attack. It was literally a life or death scenario, and protocol was still protocol. It gets pretty ridiculous, but the thought is, that guy could fake a heart attack, and when we let the ambulance in, half a dozen bank robbers could jump out of it and hit us pretty hard. Hell, that's probably actually been in a movie already. They just didn't show the part where George Clooney got a metal detector up the pee-hole and went straight to jail.
Armored Trucks Are a Terrible Target
Lots of movie bad guys seem to think the best course of action is to intercept the money in transit. Probably the silliest place this shows up is in Grand Theft Auto V. There's a scene where they pull a garbage truck into the middle of the road, and the armored truck just stops there, and wouldn't you know it, they get caught in an ambush. That would never happen today, precisely because it's such a common idea that they've even based video game scenes off of it.
That's also why we no longer let customers jump through our floating coins.
This sort of thing did happen a lot in the late '90s in Philadelphia -- they would stage a traffic accident, the hopper would get out of the truck to see what was wrong, and a minivan would swing up to the side of the truck opening fire. Now when you see something like that start to go down, you throw the truck into reverse, hit the siren, and don't stop driving until you're safe or the engine block becomes so filled with blood that it hydro-locks. It's actually company policy in that case to just plow right through the offending parties. They specifically tell us, "Go ahead and ram that car full speed; we have 30-ton trucks for a reason."
Virtually every scenario is planned for: There's a button in the truck that sends out an emergency signal to every cop in the area, who will show up with guns drawn, and someone in the truck will always be within arm's reach of that button.
Seriously, rob the Prius behind the truck instead. The driver will just run.
Alternatively, you can throw a bomb on the back of the truck to blow the doors open, which is another thing they do in Grand Theft Auto V. I don't know much about explosions, but I know those are several-inch-thick steel doors. I can't imagine an explosion powerful enough to blow those doors open without completely obliterating all of the money inside. Even if you somehow had a tank rifle or something and shot both guys through the bulletproof glass, all you did is kill the only two guys who could open the truck.
We're well aware that there is no greater vulnerability than two guys in a huge truck labeled "We have shitloads of money," so there's all kinds of things we do about that. If you work the same route every day, you're supposed to change your route constantly. Take three lefts every now and then to make sure no one is following you. Do your banks in no particular order, don't stop at the same place for lunch every day, don't get gas at the same station, etc. This is because people, generally speaking, like their money, and find that keeping it is a good thing. If you've thought of a way to steal it, odds are the folks protecting it have thought about that too.
"Sequential Bills" Aren't a Thing
In the heat of the moment, when the smoke is thickest and the novelty masks are flying, you'll hear the mastermind scream: "Make sure to grab the non-sequential bills!" He says it with such an air of competence, we never question that he knows what he's talking about. Plus it makes sense: Bills with sequential serial numbers are easier to flag as stolen, right? With the money ... serial ... tracking app?
"It's from the Candy Crush guys, so after buying the daily upgrades we end up losing money."
I don't know how that one got so popular in the movies. True, when money first comes from the mint to the Federal Reserve Bank, the bills are in sequential order. If you're thinking of robbing the Federal Reserve, that may indeed be a legitimate concern. But if you were thinking of robbing the Federal Reserve, odds are you're probably already being zip-tied by the guards after failing the very first checkpoint, so you've got bigger problems to worry about than filing.
If you're talking pretty much any other bank, though, the bills are all over the place. An average bank is going to have money from the gas station down the street, a random restaurant, your mother's G-string, etc. When they send it off, they put them in bricks by denomination, not serial number -- all the 20s together, all the 10s together, etc.
Old, worn bills try to fit in with those in the 20s, but they're not fooling anyone.
No one at the bank is sitting around surrounded by $40,000 painstakingly stacking the bills in order of serial number, and if they are, that's a crazy person who will be shortly escorted off the premises.
Getting in Is Basically Impossible
How do you break into a vault? You can ram it with a truck (like in Die Hard With a Vengeance), drill the locks (like in Payday 2), or blow the bastard to hell, like in basically every other game, TV show, and movie out there.
Or you call in a favor from the mole people.
But these days, like phones and cars and your only friends, locks are all electronic. Good luck "busting" them. Opening them doesn't involve badass drills or sexy explosions -- it involves a phone call to an office thousands of miles away in which you and your partner exchange a bunch of codes with a third party. It sucks for you, as a bank robber -- there's nothing romantic about the process now. But it's really fun for the guards, because you get to pretend you're in an old Cold War movie, where two generals or whatever have to turn a key at the same time to launch a missile. They do tend to frown upon the fake Russian accents, though.
But let's assume you're an evil master impressionist, and have pulled off the dreaded multi-party phone call. You're in. Smooth sailing and boat drinks from now on, right? Nope, because it's not just the door that comes equipped with an alarm. There are so many alarms that we don't even know about all of them -- and we work there.
Really, your best bet is to fake an alarm and watch us panic.
At least once a month, if not more often, all the phones blow up with calls from the alarm company and a bunch of cops show up and we have no idea why. We look at the alarm panel and it'll display something like "Vltgrnd3," and we're all like, "What the fuck is 'Vltgrnd3'?" And then 10 minutes later, "Ooooh ... underground sensor." It usually ends up being a mouse or something under a corner of the building. If the mouse can't get away with just "existing near the bank," odds aren't looking great for a person "stealing all of the bank's money with a charming gang of misfits."
Getting Away Is Even Harder
You've made it! Against all odds, you got into the vault, got the cash, and got out of there -- either through an elaborate system of misdirection involving triple identities and clown makeup, or the mutant power of teleportation. Who cares? You're home free now.
"There has to be an easier way to get rolled up bills to do this ..."
But not really: You've probably heard of exploding dye packs (which are totally a real thing), but progress marches ever forward, and a little blue dye seems laughably harmless compared with the technology we have now. For example, some banks plant GPS devices on their bags, enabling them to monitor the cash by satellite. It makes sense: If Big Brother is switching your cellphone mic on just to listen to you fall asleep while watching New Girl, they probably had a backup plan for keeping tabs on all of their cash.
My favorite security feature, though, are the smoke bombs. Once you unlock the bag, poof! Colored smoke comes billowing out of your getaway car. Seriously, look how cool these things are:
This particular robbery was foiled by Inspector Clouseau.
Obviously, you're not going to see that in the movies. You wouldn't spend two hours watching Matt Damon pull off the heist of the century only to have him look in the bag at the end, get a mouthful of high-velocity dye, then stumble out of the hot pink smoke cloud to find the SWAT Team pulling up outside of his hideout.
Or ... would you?
If you follow Manna on Twitter, she might agree not to steal all of your money, now that she knows how.
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