While robberies at traditional banks are steadily falling, authorities report a crime surge at "mini-banks" that are popping up inside supermarkets in Orange County and throughout Southern California.
Law enforcement experts said many of the banks are easy targets because they lack the security of larger branches and because the bustling supermarket atmosphere allows robbers to "case" the area without raising suspicion.
Robberies at supermarket banks in the region jumped from 31 in 1997 to 127 last year, many of them attributed to a handful of specialist crime rings, according to the FBI. During that period, robberies in Orange County climbed fivefold and are on track to set a record this year.
"It's become quite a problem," said Bill Rehder, who coordinates the FBI's bank robbery cases in much of Southern California. Criminals "understand that since supermarkets are opening these new branches, each one is a new target."
The number of such mini-banks has doubled in California over the last three years.
Federal officials said such heists are becoming more violent, with bands of gunmen committing "takeover" robberies as terrified customers look on.
On Thursday, a takeover robbery at a Lucky store's Bank of America branch in Buena Park led to the assault of an employee and a wild police chase and shooting. It was the third robbery at the market in a month and left customers, employees and neighbors shaken.
"It was scary," said Dianna Kelly, a stylist at Hair West, in the same strip mall as the Lucky store. "I was just getting ready to go out to my car when this lady ran into the [salon] screaming--she had a baby in her arms and another child with her--shouting, 'Bank robber! Bank robber! Lock the door!' "
Kelly said she is a customer of the bank branch at the Lucky. "I'm a little leery" of returning to the branch, she said.
In-market robberies have prompted several big banks, such as Wells Fargo Bank, to tighten security at their supermarket branches. Others, such as Bank of America, are considering the same.
But in doing so, banks face the possibility of undermining the popularity of the in-market branches. With the advent of online banking and the spread of ATMs, banks have used supermarket branches to lure customers who still long for the days when banking was more personal and convenient.
But adding security guards and installing floor-to-ceiling bandit barriers could destroy the consumer-friendly atmosphere of supermarkets that banks have used to their advantage, said John Stafford, a spokesman for the California Bankers Assn.
"They are literally a barrier between a bank and its customers," Stafford said of bandit barriers. "They are very effective, but they certainly impose a remoteness."
Not so, says Roger Pida, who heads security at Wells Fargo for the Los Angeles region.
"That is the initial complaint that we get from people who first come into contact with bandit barriers, he said. " 'How impersonal!' But they're not. You soon forget that they're there."
Pida has overseen the installation of bandit barriers at about half a dozen in-market Wells Fargo branches. Banks also have added video cameras at entrances to the markets, and some say they have reduced the amount of cash they keep.
The measures have already had an effect, Pida said. Wells Fargo branches in supermarkets were robbed 40 times in greater Los Angeles last year. This year, the number has plummeted to just four, he said.
During the early 1990s, banks significantly increased security at traditional branches, adding sophisticated metal detectors, partitions, video equipment and extra personnel. The FBI attributes these improvements in part to a 75% drop in bank robberies from 1992 to 1998.
Authorities said that as criminals found it more risky to rob regular branches, they set their sights on easier targets: the supermarket banks, which lacked many of the security measures.
Police and FBI investigators believe that a few bands of criminals are responsible for many of the recent holdups. One band, dubbed the "Shop and Rob," is suspected of pulling off 87 heists at supermarket banks since April 1998, Rehder said.
Members of the group are known for using notes in their heists but rarely stage takeover robberies, in which gunmen jump over the counter and assume full control of the bank.
The holdup of the Buena Park Lucky on Thursday was the first takeover the group is suspected of committing, Rehder said. During that heist, one robber vaulted over the bank's counter and punched the branch manager.
Six men were arrested after police pursuits that sometimes reached 100 mph. In all, about 20 alleged members of the Shop and Rob group are in custody, but others remain at large, Rehder said.
Another group is suspected in a string of 23 robberies. Two men, believed to be part of the group, were arrested last year in Santa Clarita.