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Local bank managers are beefing up branch security and safety programs in response to a record rate of bank robberies.

Representatives from several regional banks met with FBI agents last week to discuss security measures in the wake of the banking industry's own version of March madness.

Banks in Buffalo and Rochester are being hit left and right in what law enforcement officials believe is a series of unrelated incidents.

Two bank branches in Buffalo were robbed Thursday and an attempted robbery at a third bank was thwarted. There have been 16 bank robberies in Rochester during the last two weeks.

The Buffalo area is on pace for a new record this year with 46 robberies already.

There were 29 bank robberies in Buffalo during the 1995 federal fiscal year of Oct. 1-Sept. 30. Local bank robberies jumped to 68 in 1996 and 89 last year, according to FBI Special Agent Paul Moskal.

Drug money is a motivating factor in about 50 percent of all bank robberies nationwide and even more of a factor in Western New York, officials said. Most local robbers end up being arrested.

Being robbed at gunpoint can have a lasting impact on a bank teller.

"Sometimes they're not upset at all, sometimes they don't feel threatened. Sometimes they feel absolutely terrified. It really runs the gamut," Moskal said.

Security is a growing business in the banking industry. Many banks have hired retired law enforcement officers to work closely with local police and federal agents in their communities.

Many banks are also increasing their investment in security resources, such as armed guards, bulletproof glass for teller windows, surveillance video systems, and dye packs that explode inside bags of money. The dye is designed to render the money useless and make the fleeing robber a stained target.

"We look at these things very seriously, because they represent a traumatic event that can potentially affect a lot of people," said Mike Kogut, a retired FBI agent who is security director for Marine Midland Bank.

"We encourage our employees through constant meetings that the most important thing is the safety of our employees and our customers," Kogut said.

Although no bank employees or customers have been harmed in any recent incidents, the deluge of criminal activity has bank officials refocusing attention on employee and customer safety.

One gunshot was fired during one of the Rochester robberies, but the
bullet was launched as a warning.

Most banks train tellers to cooperate with robbers, Moskal said.

A teller at the Chase Manhattan Bank branch on Niagara Square thwarted a robbery attempt Thursday by refusing to hand over any money. The would-be robber left empty-handed.

Chase Manhattan officials refused to discuss the incident, referring all questions to the FBI.

Moskal declined to talk specifically about the Chase Manhattan case, but added that in some cases a teller sizes up a robber and concludes the person is harmless.

Although tellers are almost never physically injured in robbery attempts, the emotional impact can change their careers.

Several Marine Midland tellers have asked for, and received, transfers into different bank positions after being robbed, Kogut said.

Marine Midland security officials are on the scene at each branch robbery almost as quickly as local law enforcement, Kogut said. The bank also makes employee assistance counseling available to tellers after robberies.

The Marine Midland branch at 738 Seneca St. was robbed Thursday. The same branch was also robbed last November. A Fleet Bank branch on Seneca Street has been robbed several times in the last year.

All sixteen of the Rochester robberies in the last two weeks involved note passers. The incidents typically occur without drawing the attention of other customers.

Arrests have been made in 11 of the cases. The robberies appear to be the work of various individuals, not a group effort, Rochester Police Department spokesman Carlos Garcia said.

"They get very little money and we have their pictures almost immediately (from security cameras)," Garcia said.

Robbers risk a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, with another five added if they brandish a gun.

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