Enter most banks today, and the security system will record your face at multiple angles from multiple cameras. How they use those images, for what and where they store them are problems banks must navigate, as the industry transitions from analog to digital and from video cassette recorders to network video recorders (NVRs) and Internet protocol-based (IP) cameras.

“There is a huge demand for a way to close the gap between recording and analysis,” said Tim Ross, 3VR Security executive vice president, San Francisco.

Surveillance is ubiquitous in banking and an absolute must for the financial market. Banks aren’t just waiting for robbers. They are watching every transaction, with good reason. There is about $5.5 billion worth of attempted check fraud annually in the United States, according to a 2003 American Bankers Association deposit account fraud survey, making actual bank robbery only one small but highly publicized problem for banks.

More commonly, bank fraud perpetrators attempt illegal money transactions without the teller’s knowledge, and catching them requires identifying the individual through facial images caught on video. In most cases, banks take responsibility for these frauds. To investigate each one of these suspicious transactions, a bank still has to pull up video from the incident by sorting through the time and day of the event and trying to capture the face of the person completing a fraudulent withdrawal.

When it comes to the bank branch application, the priority is getting good images of the people who come and go. According to a 3VR study, the average bank spends $16,000 per branch on surveillance equipment. That does not include storage costs. Most states require storing those video images for months or even years, which poses several challenges.

Video footage storage is expensive, and transferring large files over an Ethernet connection can require more bandwidth than most banks have. In addition, the quality of that video varies. Although most banks now have transferred to digital video recording and storage, if the lighting is not right inside the bank, the captured image may be unusable. That is the result of a trend in many banks to make the facility bright and airy with large windows that make customers feel welcomed and comfortable; it also tends to thwart would-be robbers because of the visibility from the street. Quite often, this leads to bright light directly behind the customer during a transaction said Eric Cechak, vice president, Western Sales and Key Accounts, Bosch Security Systems, Fairport, N.Y. These challenges are what Bosch and other vendors must resolve with technology, and engineers and contractors must consider these challenges when placing cameras.

Bosch uses a 15-bit processor for extreme range of colors and lighting conditions. With the processor, cameras are able to pick up more detail. At this point, several large bank facilities have tested the new technology, Cechak said. “The cameras have responded to their needs very well.”

Sharing on the network

Technology such 3VR’s Smart Recorder can allow banks to share an image with other institutions, even put out an all-points bulletin to see if this person has written other fraudulent checks.

“It could have a huge impact on lowering fraud by increasing deterrence,” Ross said. Criminals know they can hide in surveillance now, but with new technology, hiding will become harder. The recording comes with Smart Storage, which provides long-term archival with one image of each transaction.

“Chances are, the guy who is ripping off big bank A is also going after big bank B, and previously, there was no way to collaborate,” Ross said.

Currently the Crimedex Network—an investigative and fraud-sharing information network to help members detect, prevent and prosecute fraud—is the largest database for sharing of surveillance images; 300 banks and several hundred law-enforcement agencies participate. The network publishes suspects’ images and details.

The Smart Storage system also offers health monitoring of cameras to allow a bank with many branches to better maintain their systems.

“Size is financial strength for banks,” Ross said, “but security can become a weakness. Criminals can pass a bad check from branch to branch.” And when it comes to alarm systems, the transmission of an alarm most frequently is being directed to a central security office as more banks consolidate. Most commonly, a bank assigns a regional security expert to oversee 10 branches, even as many as 50. If a branch’s surveillance or alarm system fails, it requires a visit to the branch by an officer often stationed miles away. For this reason, banks are starting to focus on more IP-based solutions to monitor the entire system over the Internet. They can use the system to check on cameras and digital recorders and pull up an image inside the bank if an alarm is triggered.

“If they see a live, ongoing theft, they could download pictures to the PC and send to the police in real-time,” Bosch Security Systems’ Cechak said. “If the bank has a networked IP solution, it can have the capability to e-mail fraud or robbery images directly to police.”

To save bandwidth, Bosch cameras can record locally at high resolution, then transmit to another site in low resolution. Banks are still just beginning to show an interest in some of these technologies.

“It’s an education process,” Cechak said. “That’s the biggest issue.”

At ATMs, ensuring security can be a major challenge. In fact, investigating each claim of a fraudulent ATM withdrawal is extremely costly. Here, Bosch offers a video system smart enough to allow employees to type in a customer’s account number and ATM location and pull up images of the person making that withdrawal. This technology poses to save banks an enormous amount of wasted time and money previously spent reviewing old tapes to find an alleged incident.

“It’s not as expensive as people would think,” Cechak said. One bank using the system, he said, earned a return on investment in four months. “Digital is becoming more standard, but hooking up to a network is not as common. The industry is relatively protective of information on the network.”

Banks have another area to protect: the money centers where loss comes from both robberies and employee theft. Here, money is counted in a secured area, and cameras are imperative to ensure the money is not being mishandled. Banks spend a good percentage of their security budget on intrusion detection and cameras that capture the activities of employees. Some are still using analog cameras that can be hooked up to the Internet, a hybrid approach. Bosch makes IP encoders that can be hooked up to traditional analog cameras to allow the bank to upgrade to IP without replacing all their hardware.

Shrinking data storage

Still, video storage is the greatest obstacle for banks. Few banks are as free with security spending as those in other industries, such as retail or hospitality. So they are always looking for ways to shrink their storage space needs.

“Our equipment is programmable, so you could set your own storage settings,” Cechak said.

Dave Shelton, president, D/A Central, said he, too, is seeing transition to digital but a more reluctant transition to IP-based cameras, mainly because they are more expensive.

“The technology is still evolving,” he said.

Because banks need to capture transactions to track illegal activities, storage and archive retrieval is a problem for D/A Central’s customers, as well. Most bank fraud, he said, involves check kiting, sweet-hearting and scams against the elderly, all of which take place at the ATM or in front of the teller without being immediately detected. However, Shelton said, in the eyes of the customer, the bank is responsible for these crimes, and it’s where the storage pressure is coming from. He added that the incident rate of these frauds is on the rise and so is demand from customers to catch the perpetrators.

“Depositers expect the bank to prevent these crimes,” he said.

In response, banks are storing as much video as they can afford to, but in many cases, they are looking for an easier solution, and technology now offers some compromise. If the bank chooses, for example, many new systems can be programmed to save just a few images of each transaction, which is enough to capture a clear image of the face of the person involved. Banks also increasingly want to pull those images back to a central office in real-time to allow security personnel to watch the images remotely.

“Probably in about two years, you will see a lot of NVRs,” Shelton said, assuming that price for the technology drops at the rate he expects. In addition, many law enforcement agencies now have wireless computer networking in patrol cars, so digital video can be streamed directly to officers in the field.

It also can be directed to the media, so images of a bank robbery can be immediately released to the public in the case of a manhunt, which is hours faster than the older videotape transfer method. This time savings in image transmission can be critical to law enforcement.

He added that, while 10 years ago some industry watchers predicted the closing of physical bank branches, the opposite has been the case. Banks are building more branches.

“People still want to see a person who is responsible for their money,” Shelton said. While young people increasingly do their banking online, he said, it will be a long time before bank branches become obsolete. Therefore, bank robbers will continue to pursue theft opportunities.

“There is an enormous amount of people who think they can rob from banks and get away with it,” Shelton said.

Financial center owners who need to make a decision between digital systems are faced with a wide range of types and prices and generally want the least expensive solution for the bank’s needs. Often, they go to a security systems integrator with DVR knowledge and expertise to determine the system that is right for his or her particular organization. Increasingly, customers expect contractors to have that knowledge.

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at claire_swedberg@msn.com.