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Crime Doesn't Pay (Well): The Economics of Bank Robberies

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Hollywood always makes bank robberies look so easy (with some notable exceptions). You do a little planning, throw on a Richard Nixon mask, you’re in and out in a few minutes and then you can live the rest of your life in luxury in some tropical paradise that won’t extradite you.

A real-world bank job, however, isn’t a one-way ticket to luxury.

As economists Barry Reilly, Neil Rickman and Robert Witt explain in a new study, “The return on an average bank robbery is, frankly, rubbish.”

A UK banking organization asked the three to analyze the economic effectiveness of adding some new security measures to bank branches. As part of that, the guys had a little fun and took a look at the economics of bank robbery from the bad guys’ perspective. Their results are hardly the glamorous kind which movies have taught us to expect.

The first problem is that the typical return on a bank robbery is pretty modest. Over a three-year period, one thing or another went wrong and 1/3 of UK bank robbers got away with no money at all. The average haul for a successful heist was around £30,000 (or about $47,000). Even then, about 1/5 of successful robbers were later caught, arrested and convicted, and in some cases the money recovered.

The economists did discover a few ways that would-be Dillingers could increase their gains. Their data showed that each additional member of a robbery crew raises the expected value of the haul by £9,033.20 (~ $14,216 USD). “A larger gang may have spent more time on planning and reconnoitering,” they write. “In short, it may be more professional, and the larger returns may reflect that.” A large crew has one obvious drawback, though: there are more people that have to split the loot. If the crew divvies out the cash equally, “although the total haul goes up, the haul per person goes down.”

They also found that packing heat has a positive effect on the take, and “the threat of firearm use in a bank raid raises the unconditional expected value of the robbery by £10,300.50 [$16,210 USD],” on average.

No Way to Live

Given the average haul of £30,000 and the average full-time UK employment wage of about £26,000, the economists decided that typical bank robbers are not setting themselves up for a life of luxury. Rather, a heist “will give him a modest life-style for no more than 6 months.” The loss to the bank is so low, they say, that it “is not worth the banks’ while to spend as little as £4,500 per cashier position at every branch on [new security features] to deter [robberies].”

But that’s just a one-time job. What if you made a career of knocking over banks? That introduces a different problem. If someone keeps at it and robs two banks a year to maintain their income, the economists say, the odds of getting caught will increase. After three jobs, or a year and a half, his chance of getting busted is about half. One more job, and he’s very likely in prison, which really wreaks havoc on his earning potential.

“As a profitable occupation,” the study concludes, “bank robbery leaves a lot to be desired.”

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Mata Hari: Famous Spy or Creative Storyteller?
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Nearly everyone has heard of Mata Hari, one of the most cunning and seductive spies of all time. Except that statement isn't entirely true. Cunning and seductive, yes. Spy? Probably not. 

Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was the eldest daughter of a hat store owner who was quite wealthy thanks to some savvy oil investments.  When her mother died, her father remarried and shuffled his children off to various relatives. To escape, an 18-year-old Margaretha answered an ad in the paper that might have read something like this: "Dutch Colonial Army Captain Seeks Wife. Compatibility not important. Must not mind blatant infidelity or occasional beatings."

She had two children with Captain Rudolf MacLeod, but they did nothing to improve the marriage. He brazenly kept a mistress and a concubine; she moved in with another officer. Again, probably looking to escape her miserable existence, Margaretha spent her time in Java (where the family had relocated for Captain MacLeod's job) becoming part of the culture, learning all about the dance and even earning a dance name bestowed upon her by the locals—"Mata Hari," which meant "eye of the day" or "sun."

Her son died after being poisoned by an angry servant (so the MacLeods believed).

Margaretha divorced her husband, lost custody of her daughter and moved to Paris to start a new life for herself in 1903. Calling upon the dance skills she had learned in Java, the newly restyled Mata Hari became a performer, starting with the circus and eventually working her way up to exotic dancer. 

To make herself seem more mysterious and interesting, Mata Hari told people her mother was a Javanese princess who taught her everything she knew about the sacred religious dances she performed. The dances were almost entirely in the nude.

Thanks to her mostly-nude dancing and tantalizing background story, she was a hot commodity all over Europe. During WWI, this caught the attention of British Intelligence, who brought her in and demanded to know why she was constantly traipsing across the continent. Under interrogation, she apparently told them she was a spy for France—that she used her job as an exotic dancer to coerce German officers to give her information, which she then supplied back to French spymaster Georges Ladoux. No one could verify these claims and Mata Hari was released.

Not too long afterward, French intelligence intercepted messages that mentioned H-21, a spy who was performing remarkably well. Something in the messages reminded the French officers of Mata Hari's tale and they arrested her at her hotel in Paris on February 13, 1917, under suspicion of being a double agent.

Mata Hari repeatedly denied all involvement in any spying for either side. Her captors didn't believe her story, and perhaps wanting to make an example of her, sentenced her to death by firing squad. She was shot to death 100 years ago today, on October 15, 1917.

In 1985, one of her biographers convinced the French government to open their files on Mata Hari. He says the files contained not one shred of evidence that she was spying for anyone, let alone the enemy. Whether the story she originally told British intelligence was made up by them or by her to further her sophisticated and exotic background is anyone's guess. 

Or maybe she really was the ultimate spy and simply left no evidence in her wake.

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German Police Tried to Fine Someone $1000 for Farting at Them
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In Berlin, passing gas can cost you. Quite a lot, actually, in the case of a man accused of disrespecting police officers by releasing a pair of noxious farts while being detained by the police. As CityLab reports, Berlin’s police force has recently been rocked by a scandal hinging on the two farts of one man who was asked to show his ID to police officers while partying on an evening in February 2016.

The man in question was accused of disrespecting the officers involved by aiming his flatulence at a policewoman, and was eventually slapped with a fine of 900 euros ($1066) in what local media called the "Irrer-Pups Prozess," or "Crazy Toot Trial." The errant farter was compelled to show up for court in September after refusing to pay the fine. A judge dismissed the case in less than 10 minutes.

But the smelly situation sparked a political scandal over the police resources wasted over the non-crime. It involved 18 months, 23 public officials, and 17 hours of official time—on the taxpayers’ dime. Officials estimate that those two minor toots cost taxpayers more than $100, which is chump change in terms of city budgets, but could have been used to deal with more pressing criminal issues.

[h/t CityLab]


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