Even with fractional-reserve banking, banks still house millions upon millions in their vaults so they can credibly create credit and grant SBA loans to your small business or whatever type of loan you might need.
Thieves, of course, dream of getting even just a fraction of those piles of money.
Bank robbers lacking in creativity simply point a gun at the bank teller and demand money, but that usually doesn’t yield much cash. Instead, the greatest bank robberies in history often involve complex plans and organization. These are our picks of the 15 greatest bank heists in history based on monetary value and overall interestingness.
“The original bank heist” — Bank of Pennsylvania, 1798
Just 22 years after the funding of America, the young nation would be witness to the biggest bank heist of its nascent history. During a summer night of 1798, Isaac Davis and an accomplice broke into Philadelphia’s Carpenters Hall. Having the entire night to grab as much money as they could, the pair calmly left the bank with $162,000. An amount that don’t sound like a lot of money, but it’s the equivalent of roughly 3 million modern dollars.
Despite pulling off what has been described as a perfect bank robbery, his accomplice dying shortly after from Yellow Fever, and an innocent blacksmith being thrown in prison for the crime, it didn’t pan out for Isaac. He didn’t have any kind of plan on what to do with all the money, and went to the bank the deposit it — the very same bank he had robbed. Isaac hadn’t even come up with some kind of cover story for the money.
Needless to say, he was immediately arrested and became suspect #1. Isaac Davis was an idiot whose “perfect crime” was simply a good portion of luck, and this luck would keep coming. The governor of Pennsylvania offered him a full pardon in exchange for a confession and restitution. He signed the confession, returned the remainder of the stolen money, and walked away a free man.
British Bank of the Middle East, 1976
In 1976, Beirut was ground zero for the first stage of The Lebanese Civil War. During this time of political turmoil. A militia linked to Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization decided this was the perfect time to rob a bank. They were right, and no doubt had planned this heist for months as their way to rob the bank was to blast into it through a wall the bank shared with a Catholic Church.
Now, this makes it sound as something that should had been preventable. But under normal circumstances it would had not been a possibility as the wall in question was considerably thick and rock solid, was inside a church and entering the bank didn’t mean they would be able to enter into the vaults. But the militia had the explosives to enter the bank this way, and they even had brought in expert locksmiths to open the vault.
Once inside, they grabbed everything that could be carried by the group of more than eight men — in cash, jewelry, gold bars, stock certificates, and foreign currency. It is estimated they made off with values of around $30 million, which is about $130 million in today’s money.
No one were ever brought to justice for the bank heist.
Knightsbridge Security Deposit, 1987
Like many of the intriguing bank heists on this list, the Knightsbridge Vault robbery was perpetrated by a man with incredible influence — Italian playboy and career criminal Valerio Viccei, who has been implicated in over 50 different bank robberies in his lifetime.
But unlike the other huge heists, Viccei’s plan was simple. In 1987, he entered the bank during business hours and requested to rent a safe deposit box. After being shown into the vault, Viccei and his accomplice subdued the security guards, which allowed them to let in more accomplices to help loot the vaults. They stole over £62 million (98 million in USD, which is roughly $220 million in today’s money) in cash and assets, including expensive jewelry.
Viccei fled to South America but was finally intercepted by British authorities after returning to Europe. On 19 April 2000, during day release from prison, a gunfight broke out between Viccei, an accomplice, and the police, resulting in Viccei’s death.
United California Bank, 1972
Amil Dinsio was a professional criminal from Ohio, but his huge bank heist would take place in California. In 1972, Dinsio flew himself and a gang of six robbers to the golden state to break into United California Bank, where President Richard Nixon was rumored to keep a multimillion dollar slash fund.
The gang was able to blow their way into the bank’s vault by using dynamite to blast a hole in its reinforced concrete roof, and they took off with $9 million (Almost $55m modern USD).
The burglary was executed perfectly, but the gang left a few bread crumbs, which eventually led to their arrest:
While the burglary itself was executed perfectly, the thieves made the mistake of perpetrating a similar crime back in Ohio a few months later. The FBI linked the two burglaries, and their investigation of transportation records revealed that five of the gang members had travelled to California on a single flight using their own names. A sixth man, James Dinsio, arrived on a separate flight the day before the crime. They also learned of the townhouse used as an HQ, which had been rented by one of the gang members. A search initially found nothing, until the dishwasher was checked. The burglars had forgotten to run the dishwasher before returning to Ohio, and the recovered fingerprints permitted federal arrest warrants to be made. This led to the arrest and conviction of all the burglars, along with recovering most of the loot as well.
Bank of France, 1992
There have been several bank heists to the detriment of the bank of France, but the most notable so far was the one that happened in 1992 in a Toulon branch. It was an early morning of December when a gang of masked men cornered a bank guard in front of his house as he was exiting his car coming off his night shift. They got his house keys, entered his house and made him watch them tying up his wife and kid. After that, they put on him a vest with sticks of dynamite strapped to it and told him that he, his family and potentially more people would die if he didn’t let them into the bank later than evening.
Having no choice in the matter, the guard let them into the bank just as the last few customers were leaving. The bank robbers forced the employees into a corner of the bank while they emptied out the safe vaults that opened automatically after closing time. When they were done they ran out and left in two different cars. By the time this happened, unknown to the guard, the masked men that were left with his family had already left them.
Everything about the heist had gone off without a hitch. The bounty amounted to 146 million francs that today are worth over 30 million dollars.
Many years later, authorities claimed that they had recovered 10% of the money after capturing one of the accomplices. In 2013, the assumed mastermind of the heist, 56 years old Marc Armando, committed suicide in a detention cell of Marseille — less than a month after being captured. He never revealed anything to the police about his crimes or even confirmed his involvement in the Toulon heist.
West Hartford Wells Fargo, 1983
At one point during the early 80’s, Hartford, Connecticut found itself home to the Puerto Rican Socialist Party, an organization that wants an independent Puerto Rico.
It was with this dream in mind that, that in 1983, a man named Victor Gerena pulled out a gun on distracted guards that had just stepped out of their armored car full of cash at the Wells Fargo Depot of West Hartford. After disarming the guards, Victor grabbed as many bags of cash as he could fit on the Buick he had rented that morning. And just like that he drove off with 7 million dollars in cash, which would be $20m in today’s money.
Victor Gerena now had the money to fund a reactionary underground group called Los Macheteros, a Puerto Rican nationalist organization that, fueled with ideology exported from Castro’s Cuba, set off to liberate Puerto Rico. The group even claimed that the bank robbery money wasn’t bank robbery money at all — but that it was expropriated by the Puerto Rican community that Hartford, Connecticut had exploited. Surprisingly, part of the local Puerto Rican community supported this idea.
The bank robbery funded group would go to commit a lot crimes with their wealth. Victor Gerena eventually fled to Cuba where it is believed he remains at large. As of this writing Puerto Rico is still part of the USA.
North Hollywood Bank of America, 1997
Many bank heists have been worthy of a movie, but the North Hollywood Bank of America heist of 1997 has all the ingredients down pat: the action was over the top, there is a lot of shooting involved, and the main plot leaves a lot to be desired.
In an example of life imitating art, Larry Phillips Jr. and Emil Mătăsăreanu decided to rob the North Hollywood Bank of America while in full body armor and carrying a ridiculous amount of arsenal. They failed and what ensued instead makes it one incredible bank heist for the simple fact it represents the craziest and biggest failure as far as bank robberies go. 12 police officers and 8 civilians got injured while on the middle of the shootout (now called the North Hollywood shootout) with the would-be robbers. The shootout lasted 44 minutes and eventually involved over 300 police officers.
The robbers ended up going out in a blaze of infamy. Larry by his own hand after admitting defeat, and Emil by being made to bleed out by angry police officers who delayed medical help for 70 minutes despite his lower body being full of bullet holes. No money was lost in the robbery, but it incurred millions of dollars’ worth of lawsuits and property damage.
Securitas Depot, 2006
In 2006, mixed martial arts fighter Lee Murray planned the largest and one of the most violent cash robberies in British history.
Murray assembled a team of fearless men armed with AK47s to abduct the Securitas branch manager and his family. The armed gang also tied up fourteen employees and forced them to open the cash cages. After the cash cages were open, the robbers were able to steal over $92 million.
However, this bank heist showed that it’s not always advantageous to have a large gang. The police were able to track down some of the crew members, which made it easy to find the others. Only one of the robbers is still free and living off the loot.
Barings Bank, 1992 – 1995
While not necessary a bank heist, the fraudulent speculative trades of rogue English trader Nick Leeson led to the collapse of Barings Bank in 1995.
It started with Leeson’s unauthorized gambles with the bank’s money that brought in a lot of profit. In 1992, Leeson’s trades brought in £10 million, which was about 10% of Barings’ annual profit. Leeson quickly got addicted to the praise and promotions he received for this scheme.
Of course, Leeson’s risky trading eventually started to accumulate losses. He attempted to cover his losses with Baring’s error accounts, and doubled down on his bad trades.
In 1995 it all came to an end after he placed a short straddle on the Singapore and Tokyo stock exchanges, assuming that nothing catastrophic would happen overnight to disrupt the market. An earthquake in Kobe, Japan then caused a tanking of the Asian markets.
Leeson left a note that said “I’m sorry” and fled Singapore on February 23. He was arrested in Germany later that year.
In total, Leeson’s losses totaled $1.4 billion.
Central Bank Of Iraq, 2003
The Central Bank of Iraq heist is the biggest bank heist in history with over $1 billion in stolen assets, and it was all directed by Saddam Hussein himself.
Just days before the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, Hussein gave a note to his son and personal assistant instructing them to tell the bank to fork over over $920 million and €90 million.
Of course, it would have been hard for the bank to refuse such a direct request from a dictator often described as “brutal.” Hussein’s son spent five hours loading heaps of money into vehicles.
Spy Eye, recent times
In the modern age, an increasing number of heists are committed through cyber attacks. One of the most prominent cyber attacks on financial institutions was perpetrated by Aleksandr Andreevich Panin, who created a malicious piece of software known as SpyEye.
SpyEye has infected more than one million computers worldwide, and has collected bank accounts, credit card numbers and passwords.
Panin was sentenced to 9 nine years and 6 months in prison in 2016, according to a statement issued by the US Department of Justice.
“It is difficult to over state the significance of this case, not only in terms of bringing two prolific computer hackers to justice, but also in disrupting and preventing immeasurable financial losses to individuals and the financial industry around the world,” U.S. Attorney John Horn said at the time.
Northern Bank, 2004
The best time to strike is right before Christmas, and that’s exactly what a group of bank robbers did when they targeted Northern Bank in Belfast, Northern Ireland on December 20, 2004.
The gang of thieves impersonated police officers and finessed their way into the homes of two bank branch managers, holding them and their families at gunpoint. The robbers instructed the bank managers to go to work as normal the next day and let the robbers in at the end of business hours so they could loot the place. After the robbers stole £26.5 million, the thieves released the families unharmed.
The crime remains unsolved to this day.
San Miguel Valley Bank, 1889
Butch Cassidy (born Robert Leroy Parker) is considered one of the most prolific and successful bank robbers of all time, simply because he was one of the first that managed to make a career out of it. Well, train robberies too. But his legendary bankrobbing run found its start with the San Miguel Valley Bank.
The year was 1889 and the place was Telluride, Colorado. He entered the bank, along with his accomplices Tom McCarthy and Matt Warner, guns in hand. A lot of muttering from the cashiers later, they were given sacks of money — $24,000 in total ($660,000 modern) that the bank was holding that day for miners’ wages.
They flung the sacks of money on their horses and rode off through main street while hollering and shooting their guns to the air. The very real scene became the blueprint for western movies as we know them today.
Dumbar Armored Robbery, 1997
The biggest cash heist in the history of the United States was pulled off by six men in 1997. The mastermind behind the bank heist was Allen Pace, who had been hired as a safety inspector by the Dunbar Armored trucking company.
Since Pace was an employee of Dunbar, he was able to track the security cameras at the Dunbar facility in Los Angeles, and he knew the perfect times to avoid being detected. Pace was also able to find out what times the vaults were open. So Pace assembled a team of five trusted childhood friends to help him rob the vault.
Pace and friends loaded $18.9 million into a U-Haul, and nearly got away with the entire heist. However, one of the robbers left bread crumbs by lending stolen cash to a friend — without removing the original cash straps. Allen Pace was arrested and sentenced to 24 years in prison, and he’s incarcerated at a Federal Correctional Institution in Safford to this day.