Chicago, IL

The Rise of Chicago 'Bank Jackings', Thieves Use Apps to Drain Victims' Accounts

Natalie Frank, Ph.D.

Many Chicagoans falling victim to new wave of crime known as 'bank jackings'

In major cities like Chicago, criminals armed with guns are compelling individuals to unlock their phones, gaining access to banking apps such as Zelle, Venmo, and Cash App. This digital convenience has become a catalyst for a unique form of robbery, where assailants, often masked, force victims to surrender their passcodes or use facial recognition technology. Once inside, these robbers swiftly drain bank accounts, often netting more than $1,000 – a substantial haul compared to traditional wallet theft.

Chicago, in particular, has witnessed a surge of over 25% in overall holdups, with "bank jackings" emerging as a concerning trend within the broader landscape of robberies. Unlike carjackings, these incidents involving cellphones are a relatively recent and escalating phenomenon, presenting challenges for law enforcement. The Chicago Police Department doesn't categorize them separately, making it challenging to quantify the exact number of such cases.

One victim, Zachary Skinner, shared his harrowing experience after a night out in Wrigleyville. A seemingly charitable request for a donation turned into a nightmare as masked perpetrators, one brandishing a gun, demanded Skinner's phone and passcode. Utilizing the Zelle app, they attempted a $1,000 transfer. Fortunately, Skinner managed to freeze his account in time, but the incident left him shaken.

The perpetrators, often masked, create a challenging identification scenario for victims, even when tracing money transfers. This anonymity factor contributes to the growing threat these digital criminals pose.

In another disturbing case, Anthony Morris, a felon with a history of burglary and theft, is accused of a violent bank app robbery in Streeterville. The victim, coerced into surrendering both wallet and phone, experienced a traumatic ordeal, culminating in a substantial financial loss facilitated through various payment apps.

The prevalence of digital payment apps like Zelle, Venmo, and Cash App has raised concerns about the security of users. While Zelle, owned by major banks, covers a vast majority of personal and small business accounts, it, along with other digital payment platforms, faces challenges in ensuring user safety.

Venmo and Cash App, operated by tech firms, have not reported a significant increase in bank jacking incidents. However, they emphasize user security measures like facial recognition, multifactor authentication, and PIN codes. In case of a breach, users are advised to contact customer service, update account information, reach out to financial institutions, and involve law enforcement.

The U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau asserts that consumers are not liable for unauthorized transfers, and financial institutions must refund the affected individuals. Victims of such crimes are encouraged to initiate the "error-resolution process" with their banks or digital wallet providers, without the mandatory requirement of a police report.

However, Ed Mierzwinski, senior director of the federal consumer program for the Public Interest Research Group, calls for stronger regulatory action against companies operating bank apps. He emphasizes that until stringent measures are in place, individuals should exercise caution and, if possible, refrain from using such apps altogether.

The alarming trend of violent bank jacking incidents extends beyond Chicago, with reports of similar crimes across the country in recent years. In New York, a political consultant met a tragic end after a night out, and an architect in Chicago faced a terrifying ordeal during an early morning commute.

As concerns escalate, individuals are urged to take precautions, with a Chicago police detective recommending the occasional uninstallation and reinstallation of banking apps to thwart potential threats. As technology evolves, so do criminal tactics, marking a new era in crime that demands heightened vigilance from the public.


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