Robbing Banks: Less Lucrative Than It Seems

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In spite of Willie Sutton’s claim that robbing banks was “where the money is,” a new study reveals bank robbery doesn’t always pay much. The takings from the average bank robbery look fairly small, according to a report published today in Significance, the magazine of the Royal Statistical Society and the American Statistical Association.

Contrary to movie images of unimaginable wealth, the takings from the average bank robbery look fairly small, according to a report published today in Significance, the magazine of the Royal Statistical Society and the American Statistical Association.

With unique access to a set of exclusive data from the British Bankers’ Association, the authors of today’s Significance paper, Robbing banks: Crime does pay – but not very much, present an economic model of the bank heist, balancing the robber’s efforts against his gains or losses and concluding that it is often a poorly paid career path.

While the (unconditional) average proceeds from a bank robbery in 2005-08 in the UK were £20,331 ($31,668), this compares with reports from the US of figures in the region of $4,300. About one-third of robberies yield nothing at all. If a robber carries out multiple raids to boost his income, probability says that after four raids he may be inside for some time and unable to earn at all. The average takings per person per successful raid are a seemingly modest £12,706.60 (approximately $19,792), equivalent to less than six months’ average wage in the UK.

The authors, leading economists from the Universities of Sussex and Surrey, highlight factors influencing the success of bank raids. These included the number of robbers involved in the raid (labour input), and whether firearms were displayed (capital input). The presence of firearms increased the rewards across all bank raids to an average return per person of £10,300.50 (about $16,044). There was a clear connection between the number of raiders and total takings - the bigger the gang, the greater the success, with every extra gang member raising the take on average by £9,033.20 ($14,070). Even so, with extra gang members to share the proceeds, the haul per person decreases.

Deterrent factors working against the raiders, including bank security measures, activated alarms, and the number of bank staff and customers present, also were examined for their effectiveness. Of these deterrents fast-rising security screens, which are present in only 12% of UK banks and in even fewer banks in the USA (where armed guards are a more common deterrent) were most significant, reducing the probability of a successful raid by one-third. Even so, the financial losses to banks through raids are often reasonably low compared to the cost of installing additional fast-rising screens, which might explain their low prevalence. The authors acknowledge that bank robberies involve other costs (such as social and psychological ones to customers and staff) and that using deterrents may increase the social gain available from such measures. They also note that additional data would allow valuable follow-up research.

“Although bank robberies will take place for a number of ‘impulse-related’ reasons, our evidence suggests that the takings they generate appear to be consistent with economic theory,” said Professor Rickman of the University of Surrey. “This is useful information if we are thinking about how such activity may be combatted in the future.”


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Rosanne Desmone, American Statistical Association
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This study is published in the June issue of Significance. Media wishing to receive a PDF of this article may contact physicalsciencenews[at] or rosanne[at]

Full citation: Barry Reilly, Neil Rickman and Robert Witt; Robbing banks: Crime does pay – but not very much. Significance (2012); DOI: 10.1111/j.1740-9713.2012.00570.x

About the Authors:
Neil Rickman is Professor of Economics at the University of Surrey and also a Professor at the Research in Law and Economics Institute at Erasmus University. He is a CEPR (Public Policy) Research Affiliate and Chair of the Royal Economic Society's Conference of Heads of University Departments of Economics (CHUDE).
Robert Witt is Professor of Economics and Head of the School of Economics at the University of Surrey.
Barry Reilly is Professor of Economics at the University of Sussex. His research interests lie in the area of labour econometrics, migration, development economics and applied econometrics.
To arrange an interview, please contact Howard Wheeler, Media Relations Officer, University of Surrey on +44 (0) 1483 686141 or h.wheeler[at]

About the Journal
Significance is a bi-monthly magazine for anyone interested in statistics and the analysis and interpretation of data. Its aim is to communicate and demonstrate in an entertaining, thought-provoking and non-technical way the practical use of statistics in all walks of life, and to show informatively and authoritatively how statistics benefit society. It is published on behalf of the Royal Statistical Society and the American Statistical Association.

About the Royal Statistical Society
The Royal Statistical Society is the UK's only professional and learned society devoted to the interests of statistics and statisticians. It is also one of the most influential and prestigious statistical societies in the world. The Society has an international membership, and is active in a wide range of areas both directly and indirectly pertaining to the study and application of statistics. For more information please visit

About the American Statistical Association
The American Statistical Association is the world’s largest community of statisticians. The ASA supports excellence in the development, application, and dissemination of statistical science through meetings, publications, membership services, education, accreditation, and advocacy. Our members serve in industry, government, and academia in more than 90 countries, advancing research and promoting sound statistical practice to inform public policy and improve human welfare. For more information, please visit

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