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Camera phones linked to SA bank theft muggings

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South African muggers are using camera phones to capture pictures of potential victims in banks before their accomplices stalk and rob them, according to reports.

The ruse is helping street thieves in the Walmer district of Port Elizabeth to target well-heeled victims, according to police spokesman Captain Verna Brink. "This way the person is not actually followed out of the bank, and there is very little suspicion aroused," Brink said, the Herald reports.

Among the victims of the suspected theft tactic was former SA hockey coach Brian Hibbert, who was attacked and robbed of R12,000 ($1,760) by armed men brandishing a knife and gun. Hibbert was left with three stab wounds in his right hand after he was overpowered by violent thieves last week shortly after taking a bag containing recently-withdrawn money from his car boot. The attack happened some distance away from the bank where he made the withdrawal. An unnamed female victim was also robbed in a second incident in the same area. Both cases remain unsolved.

Local police are urging banks to prohibit the use of camera phones on their premises. Theft of a different sort - fears over the use of camera phones to help low-level fraudsters to get a clean getaway or to help blaggers to case premises in preparation for armed robberies - has prompted a number of US banks to prohibit the use of mobiles on their premises.

First National Bank branches in Chicago has joined with banks in Citizens Bank of Northern California and Indianan-based Citizens Financial Bank in banning the technology. The phenomenon is not confined to the US. Banks in Mexico City began banning mobiles in May as part of attempts to foil armed robberies, the Chicago Tribune reports.

The Illinois Bankers' Association encourages its members to prohibit hats, hoods and sunglasses - which might be used by miscreants to avoid their picture being captured by security cameras - in an effort to cut down on robberies.

Opinions are split on the feasibility on enforcing a mobile phone ban in bank lobbies, the Chicago Tribune reports. FBI agent Thomas Weber said the use of mobiles in the commission of bank robberies is uncommon but he encourages banks to implement any reasonable security precautions they deem necessary. ®

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