How to keep today’s branches safe

Despite the growing focus on cybersecurity, community banks still need to be mindful of combating physical threats in the branch and at the ATM.

By Karen Epper Hoffman

With high-profile digital attacks constantly in the news, it would be easy to forget that community banks continue to face real-world threats.

The idea of the masked bank robber may seem antiquated, but these incidents still happen. “In this age of increasingly capable ATM machines and online banking, banks are physically changing how they interact with customers,” says Richard Reice, a partner at Michelman & Robinson, LLP in New York City. “To make a branch more welcoming, tellers are, in some branches, now moving out from behind plexiglass to mid-floor counter islands from which they can also welcome customers to the branch.” 

Reice believes this new customer orientation affects the need to pay greater attention to the physical threats facing bank employees and customers. A physical attack on a bank can come from the traditional robber, the “irate customer” or the angry employee, Reice says.

“Traditionally, these threats were managed by having one or more security guards on the premises, alarm systems both audible and silent, video and cyber surveillance, and physical barriers that separate staff from the public,” he adds. But even today, banks need to consider other options to keep branches and ATMs secure.

Quick stat

69%

of ATMs are vulnerable to black box attacks

Source: Positive Technologies

Sean Sposito, senior analyst for cybersecurity at Javelin Strategy & Research in Pleasanton, Calif., says more thieves will gravitate to ATMs, a “softer” and more easily compromised target, than the branch. “An ATM, especially one outside a branch, offers the best risk-to-reward ratio,” he says, adding that some can hold hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Because of this, skimming and other ATM attacks have become popular again. A Positive Technologies report states that 69% of all bank ATMs are susceptible to black box attacks, in which criminals use an electronic device to send a command to the ATM to dispense money. “The guy single-handedly waving a gun at a teller is not as sophisticated as the typical ATM attacker,” Sposito says.

Eric Bonner, director of physical security at Diebold Nixdorf in North Canton, Ohio, says the physical security landscape is “definitely transforming.” “It all begins with how banks are changing the way they interact with their customers and the layout and designs of their branches,” he says. “The rise of new open branch designs inclusive of teller pods, discovery tables, technology walls and more, and the process changes that come along with that, require a different approach to the security technology being deployed.” 

Technology to the fore

Bonner says Diebold Nixdorf is seeing the utilization of more advanced and secure solutions, such as cash recyclers and advanced combination or key solutions, versus traditional under-counter solutions with keys. This not only enhances security but drives efficiencies for staff. “Increasing staff efficiency and productivity via these smarter security solutions is the future, in my opinion,” he says. “Banks want to further enable branch staff to spend less time focused on branch operational processes, such as managing combos and locks, signature cards, accessing vaults or streamlining dual-control processes, and more time interacting and selling to customers.”

Chris Mullins, a national technical sales manager for security products for Johnson Controls in Milwaukee, Wis., says that while every community bank, regardless of size, takes physical security seriously, the technologies they use vary. According to Mullins, a typical video installation for a community bank branch typically ranges between 10 and 16 cameras at an individual branch, and the cameras are equipped with tamper detection technology. “Most community bank branches feature a mix of intrusion detection technology that can detect when a glass window is broken, but by far the most common technological tool is video surveillance,” he says.

“New technology and employee training are becoming increasingly used to minimize risk.”
—Richard Reice, Michelman & Robinson, LLP

Training is key, Reice says. “While traditional avenues to provide security have tremendous value and remain in service, new technology and employee training are becoming increasingly used to minimize risk,” he adds. “Workplace violence training is essential for branch employees. Training to make staff sensitive to a troubled coworker who may pose a risk to their fellow employees and how to respond to that is essential, as is robbery response training.”

Security tools are growing more advanced, too. “Banks are increasingly making use of biometrics for better customer identification and for bank access,” Reice says. “Facial recognition that provides early warning that a recidivist bank robber may have entered a branch may be coming to a bank near you.” 

These innovations are even coming to the tried-and-true security camera, according to Mullins.

“With both basic surveillance and, in some cases, built-in video analytics,” he says, “the cameras check for things such as how many people are present, how long lines are and for any deviating behaviors, such as a person lingering in the lobby but not approaching a teller window or a specific employee.”


Karen Epper Hoffman is a writer in Washington state.

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