Robbing banks is a crappy way to earn a living

"Robbing banks: Crime does pay – but not very much," a paper by academic economists commissioned by the Royal Statistical Society and American Statistical Association on the economics of bank-robbery concluded that bank-robbers are wasting their time. The return from robberies is "rubbish". John Timmer summarizes the paper for Ars:

The basic problem is the average haul from a bank job: for the three-year period, it was only £20,330.50 (~$31,613). And it gets worse, as the average robbery involved 1.6 thieves. So the authors conclude, "The return on an average bank robbery is, frankly, rubbish. It is not unimaginable wealth. It is a very modest £12,706.60 per person per raid."

"Given that the average UK wage for those in full-time employment is around £26,000, it will give him a modest life-style for no more than 6 months," the authors note. If a robber keeps hitting banks at a rate sufficient to maintain that modest lifestyle, by a year and a half into their career, odds are better than not they'll have been caught. "As a profitable occupation, bank robbery leaves a lot to be desired."

Worse still, the success of a robbery was a bit like winning the lottery, as the standard deviation on the £20,330.50 was £53,510.20. That means some robbers did far better than average, but it also means that fully a third of robberies failed entirely.

Economists demonstrate exactly why bank robbery is a bad idea


  1. >  it will give him a modest life-style for no more than 6 months

    I think this calculation is a bit pessimistic – it assumes the bank robbers are correctly declaring their income and paying taxes and NI.  I really suspect they don’t do that.

    1. At best it’s a modest lifestyle for about 7 or 8 months, since it’s still only about 60% of the average post-tax income.

      According to the article the US take for bank robbers is substantially worse ($4330).  I’d always suspected this, as when I read reports of local bank robberies, the amounts always seem so pitiful (especially given the local cost of living).

  2. Bank robberies, it might be argued, are a way to garner quick cash for an item or item(s) of temporary need, and might not be attempted again if the perpetrator is not caught, thus becoming a “successful” influx of cash for a point in time.

    Then again, there’s the “Geezer Bandit;” 16 banks and hasn’t been caught yet. 

  3. the inputs included failed attempts and a lot of incompetents who think its a good idea to knock over a bank aren’t qualified to do it.  also do bank robbers normally report their income?  i’d assume not making this tax-free.  it looks like the top 10% are making a very nice living for themselves (as long as they stay out of jail of course)

    update: from the source material 2/3 of robberies are successful.

    1. I’m surprised it’s as low as 2/3. I would have thought the banks – and certainly the bank employees – would have a primary interest in getting the robber out without causing any unnecessary trouble and then limiting publicity. Surely they’re all insured anyway, right? Foiling a bank robber in the act seems like a very dangerous thing to do for no particularly good reason.

      Although, I guess there is value in deterrence.

      1. You have to remember that sometimes bank robbers manage to foil themselves without any help, though.  Google “bank robber leaves without money” and watch all the different stories appear, for instance.

      2. It wouldn’t entirely surprise me if police departments have a somewhat outsize interest in bank robbers (both because of their historical aura of actually being a somewhat serious crime) and because the sort of person who is willing to try a risky, potentially violent, armed robbery for what is actually a pretty lousy payoff is quite possibly somebody you don’t want wandering around looking for mischief for any longer than you can help it…

        The really smooth operators are dangerous at a society level, because they can and do end up running the place and sucking it dry; but ‘dumb, impulsive, willing to risk violence for peanuts’ is not a glowing letter of recommendation when it comes to predicting your past and future rap sheet.

      3. Sounds like exactly what the greatest criminal mind in London would want us to think!

  4. Why would they be relying on reported income? You don’t need the robbers to tell anyone how much they’ve stolen in any one robbery; I’m pretty sure the bank will know.

    1. Bingo, i suspect most over the counter robberies, be it bank, store or similar, is a act of desperation. Most likely people with drug habits or similar that they can’t seek help for via official channels as they are as likely to end up in jail as get aid.

      1. People with drug habits usually rob liquor stores or gas stations, because there’s less security, even though there’s a lot less money.  I wish I didn’t know these things personally, but I do.  *sigh*

    2. And the best part is, if you get caught, they’ll pay for your room and board, and you get a free prison jumpsuit.

    3. Yeah, but to do a bank robbery and not get caught you need a certain amount of equipment, know-how and ability to keep your cool.  Of course, people who turn to that kind of crime usually aren’t the brightest crayons in the box; if a life of crime is your best option due to being screwed by the kyriarchy/sucktastic economy, there are much more profitable ways to go about it.

  5. You know what else doesn’t make much money? Watching a sunset. Planting a tree. Listening to your grandmother tell stories about when she was a girl. I guess we shouldn’t do those things either.

    Fuck your bottom-line profit-driven efficiency bullshit. I don’t rob banks to live, I live to rob banks. At the end of the day, if you haven’t made yourself happy, then what have you acco–I SAID KEEP YOUR HANDS WHERE I CAN SEE THEM.

  6. This assumes that the person stays in the country where they robbed the money from. A good deal of the mythology of people pulling off a ‘big score’ they usually use that money to go to some tropical island or something.  Granted the numbers we are talking about here rarely qualify as ‘big scores’ it can be enough to get to a nice place, and live there for quite a while (a year or more) in places where such money tends to go further. Due to factors I won’t get into, I live on for a full year on less than these amounts, its not amazing by any means, but if I could guarantee getting 1.5 times in one afternoon that I live on in a year (which these numbers suggest) I could be very tempted to pull it off, and one of the things I would almost immediately do is get the heck out of Dodge and go where I could make that amount last a great deal more than where I currently am (a city which is considered one of the most expensive places to live in North America).

  7. Some guys in my town, I actually knew them, decided it would be fun to rob a bank in the next nearest city, go to a seaside resort town and spend it all in a week-long fling of booze, hookers and blow.  Brilliant idea, eh?

    They planned and executed the robbery fairly well, switched cars and were already in the clear and out of town with the loot, when the driver realized he forgot to, you know, fill up the gas tank, so they stopped at a gas station in the outskirts, where by pure chance, a cop also stopped to fill up.  So the driver got VERY nervous and left in too much of a hurry.  So a couple of blocks later the cop pulled them over to write up a traffic fine, then noticed the guys were pale and sweating, ordered them to get off and open the trunk…

    Five years in the can for a stupid impulse they stupidly carried through.

  8. Shockingly, a group of economists came to a predetermined conclusion using a series of faulty assumptions.

    The points about declared income and failed attempts been made already.  What about the fact that the people who are robbing banks are probably not just sitting around waiting to rob a bank the rest of the time?  Surely they have other sources of income (both licit and ill-). Thirty thousand for just a few hours work (maybe a couple days if it’s planned out beforehand) sounds like a pretty good rate.

    “Her daddy was a bankrobber, but he never hurt nobody. He just loved to live that way, and he loved to steal your money.”

  9. When I was prosecuting bank robberies in Los Angeles (then the “bank robbery capital of the world”) in the 90s, the average take was around $800-$1500 per job.  Most were sad-sack junkie note-jobs.

  10. Back in the ’90s, when I first moved to Cincinnati, there was a guy known as “Average Joe.” White guy, mid-30s, well-groomed, khakis and a polo shirt, drove a minivan. He also robbed more banks than  Jesse James, John Dillinger, Clyde Barrow, and the Barker gang combined.

    He specialized in bank branches in strip malls just off of Interstate highways 71 and 75. His real name is Daniel Schwarberg, and he got only 5 years in prison. (“Judge Wilhoit said Mr. Schwarberg seemed to be a good man who’d lost his way.”)

    I don’t know what’s happened to him since then (and Google is no help), but I’d love to see Hollywood give the full Robin-Hood treatment to a skeezy punk and petty thief who just happens to conform to society’s expectation of normalcy.

    1. That is an impressive career stat.  His story may just be compelling enough to be perverted by Hollywood into a Michael Bay explodziganza.

  11. The problem is that no matter the outcome, those who are willing to take this risk have been proven to always accept short term insufficient gains against long term higher gains every time regardless of risk. They don’t seem to have the ability to wait.

  12. Actually been saying this all along. Grew up with neighborhood friends involved in all kinds of B.S., but never got aught up in it. Not only does it not really pay, in the long term you loose a lot more: Life, security, the ability to be legit, etc… I really doesn’t pay.

    I say this with all non-ironic seriousness, but it genuinely seems that the normal societal economic structures nowadays are so screwy that one can make more money ripping folks off on banking & real estate deals.  Heck, weren’t there tons of dot-com boom/bust & real estate boom/bust “pump & dump” operations rub by the mob?  Seriously.

    1. Exactly. Robbing banks is one of those classic, high profile crimes with along history and mythology attached to it. But the reality is that most banks these days deal in very little hard currency. The real money these days is in investment scams, but they don’t have quite the same profile, which of course is why they are still successful.

  13. Perhaps it’s like Music… You just have to get good at it (or very, very lucky) before you get into the upper end of the pay scale.

    I think there is also some bias in the reporting here, but it’s not like I expect to ever see a published report saying that “Bank Robbery is an exciting and rewarding career.”.

    1. …which makes me wonder if these reports mysteriously resurface every time the economy tanks?

  14. This reminds me of the conversation I had with my little brother after he got out of jail the third or fourth time.  “I am not going to talk morality with you because our parents have done that to death and you clearly don’t come from the same place as the rest of us there, but I want you to consider this:  you KEEP GETTING ARRESTED.  I believe you should do something you’re good at, and you SUCK at being a thief, and you SUCK at being a drug dealer, too.  Find something to do that you actually have some talent for doing right, because Dad’s tired of bailing you out and I’m afraid to call home if I’m in a good mood for fear that our parents will ruin it with the latest news about you.”

    I am not a shrink, nor do I play one on TV, but I’m pretty sure he’s a sociopath, because appeals to his self interest work best; he stayed out of jail for five years after that.

    (I am not saying this lightly; he was trying to scam the doctors in the hospital where our father was when he died. I am the only person in the family who can deal with him because I never give him access to my stuff and I never try to reason morally with him. I suspect a lot of bank robbers think like he does; I’m sure he’d have robbed a bank by now if he were a little brighter.)

    1. he was trying to scam the doctors in the hospital where our father was when he died.

      If I had a dollar for every time an addict/dealer parent tried to steal the baby scale in the OB ward…..

      1. Right? Any drug user who’s seen Drug Store Cowboy can’t help himself from nosing about the hospital floor where he’s visiting someone.

      2. OK, tangentially related story – I was in the hospital, and I became briefly coherent, and I found myself in a darkened room, alone, surrounded by extremely expensive equipment, waiting for the next wave of overwhelming pain, and I thought to myself:  If I got up and smashed the shit out of this place, I bet a couple burly orderlies would come and horse me up with thorazine.

        Luckily I was unable to get out of the wheelchair, but still, don’t judge ’til you’ve been there. “There but for fortune” and all that.

  15. Came for good comments, was not disappoint.

    There is an element of gambling in every crook; the thrill of pulling the slot machine handle or throwing the dice is the same as a robbery.

    The Thieves Fallacy is the same as the Gamblers Fallacy: I didn’t get anything the last few banks I knocked over, this one has got to be where all the money is!

    And the corollary: The last few banks have paid off great, I’m on a roll, let’s go hit the main branch!

  16. I don’t know.. a couple grand seems like a good hourly rate to me, maybe bank robbers just need to be open to part time employment during the off season.

  17. 20-30 thousand dollars at one time can be quite a shot in the arm. Just don’t even think of making a career out of it. the third time the odds are against you getting away with it.

  18. I’d like to see the standard deviations on this, both for amount taken and for probability of being caught. For some people it might be an economically plausible choice, especially if jail time is not a huge negative. (Of course, every person for whom the number work out reasonably means it’s that much worse a choice for the rest.)

    It’s interesting that the average take is higher in england. I wonder if that’s indirectly because of the dole — crime has to pay better to be attractive when there’s a better safety net, and you effectively weed out the people who might be attracted to crime because they have no other perceived way of getting basic necessities.

  19. Bank robbers in movies always have inside info about when a large amount of cash or gold or whatever is going to be in the bank. They know that on a normal day it isn’t worth it. 

    I guess I’m smarter than real-life bank robbers but you would think that they probably love heist movies more than anybody, so they should really know this stuff. 

    I’m not talking about small-time junkies and the like who are off their rockers – they aren’t the ones getting £12,706.60 per raid.

  20. Let’s divide bank robbers into two groups, rational and irrational. My guess is that rational bank robbers don’t set out to be average.

    Also, let’s divide bank robbers into two groups, those for whom prison is a deterrent,and those for whom it is not. I’m guessing that if you are planning to go to jail, being a bank robber would give you fairly high status in jail, compared to some other options. I personally never want to be in jail for more than 48 hours again,and also I have little interest in getting shot, so if I were going to rob a bank it would involve a business plan and a loan application. The usual method in my neighborhood for robbing banks is to borrow $50,000 on a $20,ooo house.
    -arbitrary aardvark

  21. Or you could go to college in a welfare state. I studied history at a German university for US$100/semester with everything subsidized. With the best health insurance I’ll ever have (included meds and dental), well-designed dorms that housed 50% Germans and 50% international, a lifesaving university cafeteria with great conversation and people-watching, public transportation (free throughout the state with my student ID), and a discount at the local naked beach. During that time, I lived on US$6000/year and traveled all over Europe. I had a better quality of life than American millionaires, not least because the basic safety net over there meant society’s dregs were well cared-for and curious, and because the food in the local Safeway was fantastic and organic, well-informed and seasonal.


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