It's every merchant's nightmare. A masked gunman enters a store and threatens the cashier, demanding all the money in the register. If he doesn't get full cooperation, he warns, he'll shoot.
With a string of "shotgun robberies" and more typical holdups taking place in the Baltimore area this year, that nightmare has become a reality for many merchants and restaurateurs.
Chi-Chi's Mexican Restaurant in Timonium, Basics Food Center in Randallstown, and the Holiday Inn of Pikesville have all been victims of robberies within the past year, as well as dozens of other local businesses.
There's no sure way to prevent robberies. But there are ways to reduce the likelihood that your business will be hit by crime, says Sgt. Larry Lewis of the Crime Resistance Unit of Baltimore City Police.
Here are some suggestions:
* Control your cash. To avoid attracting robbers, keep the amount of cash in your register at a bare minimum. Transfer the excess cash to a drop-safe that you've installed on your premises or to another secure place.
Fifteen years ago, the Southland Corp., a Dallas-based company, instituted a "mandatory-drop policy" for the 6,100 7-Eleven stores it owns across the country. When the cash in the register exceeds a certain limit -- usually $30 at night and slightly more during the day -- the cashier puts the excess money into a drop-safe that he or she cannot open.
Since the policy was instituted, store robberies have decreased by about 50 percent, said Karla Leavelle, a company spokeswoman. "If people know that they won't get much in the stores, it discourages robberies," she said.
Additionally, count your receipts and cash in a locked office that's equipped with a peephole.
When making deposits, don't send the same person at the same time of day. Instead, vary the pattern. Also, don't make your errand obvious by carrying the cash in bank bags. Instead, use a canvas tote bag one day, a briefcase the next, and a third type of bag the next.
"Try to be discreet about what you're doing because how you make deposits is one of the things robbers are going to look for," Sergeant Lewis said.
Moreover, warn your employees not to discuss the amount of cash that flows through the business with anyone, since that kind of information can easily get into the wrong hands. "We tend to want to say, 'Thursday's a big day at the grocery store, we bring in thousands of dollars,' " Sergeant Lewis said. "But you never knowwhere that kind of information is going to go."
* Greet your customers. Often a thief doesn't make up his mind whether he'll rob your store until after he walks in the door, Sergeant Lewis said.
"If you've got a clerk whose back is turned and who's doing inventory, [the robber] might decide that this is the perfect opportunity to take out a knife or a gun and say, 'Don't turn around, give me the money,' " he said.
On the other hand, if the potential robber is met with a prompt, cheerful greeting from a clerk, he may be discouraged from carrying out his action.
* Keep visibility levels high. Don't cover the windows of your store with sales banners or other items. Criminals like to work in privacy. Crime is less likely to take place in a "fishbowl" environment, where anyone can see inside the store. Clear windows also help policemen who are making rounds to keep an eye on what's happening in your store. And, they permit store employees to watch what's taking place outside the store, taking note of any suspicious characters walking back and forth.
Good lighting is also an important factor in preventing crime. Ensure that the areas inside and outside your store are well-lighted. "The more you light up the place, the less comfortable robbers are going to feel," Sergeant Lewis said.
* Keep an eye out for suspicious characters. If someone enters your convenience store, looks around, and buys a pack of gum, then shows up two hours later to look around some more and to pick up a candy bar, he might have more on his mind than satisfying a sweet tooth. Likewise, banks should be wary of anyone who seems to be walking back and forth outside their establishment and looking in the window. If you see someone suspicious, call the police.
* Never open or close your business alone. Acting with a partner makes you less vulnerable to potential robbers. And if something happens to one of you, the other person may be able to contact the police.
When opening a business in the morning, one person should enter the store while the other waits outside. If the first person takes longer to emerge than the prearranged amount of time, the second should call the police.