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Bank Robbery Ain't What it Used to Be

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When we think of bank robbers, we think of the Golden Age of the Public Enemy, the John Dillingers and Bonnies and Clydes of the 1930s and 40s, when hardscrabble times seemed to call for desperate measures, and the robbers seemed more like gun-toting Robin Hoods than vicious criminals. More recently, the bank robber in popular culture has morphed into the Dangerous Gentleman; think George Clooney in Out of Sight or Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief. Even Al Pacino's angry, strange, likeable character in Dog Day Afternoon. But how the times have changed. These days, the internet is a much more profitable place to do your thieving -- in 2003 and 2004, an estimated $2 billion was stolen from online checking accounts -- leaving real-world stick-up-jobs the province of the desperate, the dumb, and more often than not, the drug-addicted. Recently, weaponless "note-jobs" have largely replaced the loud, aggressive handgun stickups portrayed so often on film, thanks to the offer-no-resistance safety policies of most banks. But the hauls aren't what they used to be -- in the 1970s, robbers could expect to make almost $20,000 from the average haul; these days the average is half that. So what lunk-heads out there are still pulling these low-profit, high-risk crimes? Let's take a gander.

Rogue's Gallery

robbery.jpgWith the recent downturn in the economy dovetailing with an upswing in bank robberies, the Houston branch of the FBI has had trouble keeping the public interested in (and looking out for) the robbers it catches on tape. To combat this problem (and spice things up a bit), it's taken to giving whimsical nicknames to all its suspects. For instance: The "Visine Villain," who robbed a Houston-area bank sporting some seriously bloodshot eyes. The "Bathroom Bandit," who used the loo before looting the bank. The "Hard-Hatted Handyman," who, you guessed it, robbed a bank wearing a hard-hat. Hardly the stuff of legend, these folks.

A few of recent vintage have been more entertaining:
"¢ the "Barbie Bandits," a pair of blonde 19-year-old women who sported ponytails and movie-star sunglasses as they robbed a bank in Atlanta last September.
"¢ the "Grandpa Bandit," a 91-year-old Texan man who tried to hold up his local bank in 2004.
"¢ the "Tie Rob Bandit," a well-dressed East Providence bank robber who passed demand notes that were both curt and courteous: "Give me $3000. I have a gun. Have a nice day."

They're dumber these days

Uncreative disguises aside, bank robbers seem to be getting dumber, as their more-adept criminal brethren shift their efforts to the internet. A few examples from New England's Boston Phoenix:

When it comes to bank robbing, Rhode Island has seen its share of on-the-job buffoonery. Last year, one benighted bank robber in Providence presented the teller with a note demanding "$50s, $30s [sic] and $20s."

Another, in Swansea, Massachusetts, upon being told that the teller had no cash, promptly passed out in shock. (He was still unconscious when the police arrived.) In Cranston, one robber was quickly apprehended after holding up a local bank, wearing a mechanic's shirt with his own name embroidered on the breast pocket.

Meanwhile, in Providence, one armored-car robber's attempt to make a hasty getaway was foiled when he found that his loot was four bags of money containing $3200 — in pennies.

The internet is full of dumb-bank-robber stories, like this one about a guy who robbed a bank while yakking on his cellphone the whole time, or this video of a thwarted robber who couldn't get out of the bank because he was pushing on a door that read "pull." So what's the moral of our story? According to statistics, more than three quarters of all bank robbers get caught -- sometimes as many as 95%, depending on the city -- and given those odds, you're better off in Atlantic City. Bank robbery sure ain't what it used to be.

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How Urban Legends Like 'The Licked Hand' Are Born
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If you compare the scary stories you heard as a kid with those of your friends—even those who grew up across the country from you—you’ll probably hear some familiar tales. Maybe you tried to summon Bloody Mary by chanting her name in front of the mirror three times in a dark bathroom. Maybe you learned never to wonder what’s under a woman’s neck ribbon. Maybe you heard the one about the girl who feels her dog lick her hand in the middle of the night, only to wake up to find him hanging dead from the shower nozzle, the words “humans can lick too” written on the wall in the dog’s blood.

These ubiquitous, spooky folk tales exist everywhere, and a lot of them take surprisingly similar forms. How does a single story like the one often called “Humans Can Lick Too” or "The Licked Hand" make its way into every slumber party in America? Thrillist recently investigated the question with a few experts, finding that most of these stories have very deep roots.

In the case of The Licked Hand, its origins go back more than a century. In the 1990s, Snopes found that a similar motif dates back to an Englishman’s diary entry from 1871. In it, the diary keeper, Dearman Birchall, retold a story he heard at a party of a man whose wife woke him up in the middle of the night, urging him to go investigate what sounded like burglars in their home. He told his wife that it was only the dog, reaching out his hand. He felt the dog lick his hand … but in the morning, all his valuables were gone: He had clearly been robbed.

A similar theme shows up in the short story “The Diary of Mr. Poynter,” published in 1919 by M.R. James. In it, a character dozes off in an armchair, and thinks that he is petting his dog. It turns out, it’s some kind of hairy human figure that he flees from. The story seems to have evolved from there into its presently popular form, picking up steam in the 1960s. As with any folk tale, its exact form changes depending on the teller: sometimes the main character is an old lady, other times it’s a young girl.

You’ll probably hear these stories in the context of happening to a “friend of a friend,” making you more likely to believe the tale. It practically happened to someone you know! Kind of! The setting, too, is probably somewhere nearby. It might be in your neighborhood, or down by the local railroad tracks.

Thrillist spoke to Dr. Joseph Stubbersfield, a researcher in the UK who studies urban legends, who says the kind of stories that spread widely contain both social information and emotional resonance. Meaning they contain a message—you never know who’s lurking in your house—and are evocative.

If something is super scary or gross, you want to share it. Stories tend to warn against something: A study of English-language urban legends circulating online found that most warned listeners about the hazards of life (poisonous plants, dangerous animals, dangerous humans) rather than any kind of opportunities. We like to warn each other of the dangers that could be lurking around every corner, which makes sense considering our proven propensity to focus on and learn from negative information. And yes, that means telling each other to watch out for who’s licking our hands in the middle of the night.

Just something to keep in mind as you eagerly await Jezebel’s annual scary story contest.

[h/t Thrillist]

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