Imagine you're at your bank, and it's your turn at a teller counter. You notice a person on your left handing another teller a note, and then you overhear a hushed demand for money. Other customers aren’t aware of what's going on: You're in the middle of a robbery. What do you do?
U.S. banks were robbed more than 4,000 times last year, according to the FBI. If you witness a robbery, security experts say, your first priority should be to avoid making a bad situation worse. Here’s what else they recommend to keep yourself safe.
In most bank holdups, robbers are only after the bank’s money, not looking to harm customers, says Sgt. James Bracke of the FBI Bank Robbery Task Force in Phoenix.
“Bank robbers want to get in and out as quickly as possible, without the situation escalating,” he says. So if you don't panic or act impulsively, odds are you won't draw a robber’s attention, and you can get through a holdup unscathed.
Staying calm may be easier than you think, because typically customers don’t even know a crime is taking place. Most bank robberies aren't Hollywood-style dramas with gun-wielding villains. Instead, about 60% are simple “note jobs”: A robber stands in line, waits to see a teller, then quietly passes a note at the counter, says Doug Johnson, a senior vice president for the American Bankers Association, an industry trade group.
That’s what happened to Wanda Andrews of Anaheim, California, when she visited her bank branch a few years ago. “I didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. I finished my transaction and went to leave, but as soon as I walked out the door, there were SWAT team members on the other side! I heard one say to another that I didn’t match the description of the suspect, and then they told me to run!”
Observe the robber, if you can
If you know you're witnessing a bank holdup, try to note the robber’s appearance without putting yourself in danger, Bracke says.
“What type of clothing is the robber wearing? Can you identify scars or tattoos on their arms or hands? Do any tattoos have letters or symbols? Does the person have a limp when they walk?
"These can be helpful if you’re able to note them without bringing extra attention to yourself,” Bracke says.
Don’t be a hero
“The biggest fear we have is that the customer will try to tackle the bank robber,” says Barry Thompson, a bank security consultant based in Oswego, New York. That’s because a confrontation could cause a robber to resort to violence.
Even if you don’t see a weapon, the robber could be carrying a knife or gun, Thompson says. And even if the robber is unarmed, you could get hurt by intervening.
Be cooperative, unless …
If a robber shouts out orders — such as “hit the floor!” — the best advice is to do what the robber says, Johnson advises. You’re less likely to provoke violence, and you’ll avoid drawing attention to yourself.
If you’re in one of the 3% of bank robberies that results in violence and you believe that your life is in danger, you’ll have to decide whether to fight or try to run away, Bracke says.
But according to FBI statistics, none of the thousands of bank robberies that occurred in 2015 resulted in the death of a customer or bank employee.
Don’t compare notes with other witnesses
After the bank robber leaves, the bank likely will briefly close. You may be asked to provide a witness statement. It’s important that you don’t talk with other witnesses before you’re interviewed by detectives, because that could compromise the investigation, Johnson says.
“You don’t want to mix and match notes with the other customers,” he says.
» MORE: How to choose a bank
Continue to bank confidently
Even if the robber makes off with bank money, your personal checking and savings accounts will be safe. They are federally insured.
You can also take comfort in knowing that bank robberies are declining. They’ve dropped more than 40% since 2006, partly because of better security, including bulletproof barriers for tellers, higher-quality surveillance video and dye packs that explode in bags of stolen cash. And stricter sentencing guidelines deter some would-be robbers and keep serial robbers locked up for years.
Chances are you’ll never witness a bank robbery. But if you do, being prepared will help you make smart decisions at a potentially dangerous moment.
This article was written by NerdWallet and was originally published by USA Today.