Bank robbers have been striking with stunning regularity during the past few weeks in the Chicago area, FBI agents say, including at least six cases involving suburban lending institutions since Dec. 7.
In some ways, it would almost seem to make sense. This time of year, with the holidays and gift-giving season upon us, everyone -- even criminals -- would like to have a few extra bucks in their pocket.
But investigators say nothing could be further from the truth: These bank robbers aren't playing Santa.
"It's a myth. Bank robbers do not rob banks with the purpose of purchasing Christmas gifts," said Special Agent Garrett Croon, former coordinator of the FBI's bank robbery division. "In my nine-plus years of investigating bank robberies and interviewing bank robbers, I have never been told the reason they robbed the bank was for Christmas presents."
Instead, Croon said, most of the robberies can be traced to three things: "Drugs, alcohol or gambling."
The only seasonal connection, he said, is the drop in temperatures.
"Bank robberies increase in cold weather because the weather affords the bank robber the luxury to attempt to cover up his body with more clothing and conceal his identity," Croon said. "Bank robbers will wear hats, scarves, gloves, big winter coats, and more to justify why they walked into a bank with this type of concealment."
The Wednesday night robbery of the TCF Bank on the 1800 block of Arlington Heights Road in Arlington Heights is the latest in a string of almost daily robberies in Chicago and the suburbs dating to the morning of Nov. 12, when a man robbed TCF Bank branches in Streamwood and Schaumburg within an hour of each other.
The surge comes during a time when the overall number of bank heists actually has dropped from a year ago. As of Dec. 14, 2016, for example, there had been 105 robberies in the suburbs and 82 in Chicago. Through the same period this year, there have been 91 bank robberies in the suburbs and 49 in Chicago.
Before this recent outbreak, where authorities say the suspects mostly appear to be different individuals, agents were focused on one man suspected of robbing five banks in nine days in late September across the suburbs, including Glen Ellyn, Rolling Meadows, Westchester, Lisle and Plainfield.
Such serial bank robbers "pop up and keep targeting banks for whatever their reason might be," Croon said Thursday. "I don't have a definitive reason to say why we witnessed that spree near the end of September and early October."
"Bank robbers will rob a bank and get $200 and say 'That's not enough,' and then go hit another one and get $5,000 and say, 'Wow. If I do it again maybe I'll get $10,000.' And then they go do it again," he said. "It's all in the mind of the bank robber."
In many cases, the robbers have implied they had a gun or actually showed a weapon -- but that doesn't change the way the FBI trains bank tellers to respond.
"When I speak to bank employees, I remind them that you know your customers, we don't. If someone comes into the bank and you don't know them and you are suspicious of them, notify your co-worker, put eyes on the suspicious person, look for things that stand out," Croon said.
If the suspicious person turns out to be a robber, there's only one way to respond.
"Do what they say to get them in and get them out," Croon said. "Just focus on being a good witness. Does the person have a tattoo? A scar? Discernible teeth? We're looking for things that can't be easily changed quickly."
In Illinois, bank robbery is a federal crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
To report a tip or keep up with the latest bank robberies in your area, visit bankrobbers.fbi.gov.