Can ATM alarms stop ATM robbery?

Hannah Kim
by Hannah Kim, Staff Writer

ATM theft is somewhat inevitable. The machines hold cash, and well, that’s desirable to criminals. There is a somewhat wide variety of ATM crime, from “skimming” to heist after withdrawal to taking an entire machine off premises.

But another type of ATM theft comes off as pretty scary, and has prompted at least some interest in new security measures. These are the home invasions or carjackings that turn into a mobile kidnapping and end up in front of an ATM with an often armed robber forcing a victim to withdraw as much cash as they can. The scary part: What comes next, after the cash limit is depleted. The list of violence is long.

Here are two recent examples: In early July, a 15-year-old male and two other young men allegedly kidnapped a man from the front porch of his home in Atlanta and forced him to withdraw money from a Bank of America ATM. According to the police report, the men held the victim for multiple attempts, and even tried to make a post-midnight withdrawal once they reached the victim’s maximum daily limit. That limit, by the way, can be as little as $200 or limitless, depending on which bank and account type you have.

For example, an “emergency-PIN” such as a second PIN or a customer’s PIN in reverse, would alert a law enforcement agency that a customer is in danger. Or even a “Help” button on the machine. While emergency-PIN technology exists, it has never been mandated.

National figures for ATM crimes are difficult to assess, as law enforcement agencies don’t always keep them as separate reports. For instance, Officer John Chafee of Atlanta’s Police Department said reports with ATM in the narrative would have to be searched and individually examined if it was an ATM-related crime.

There’s no quick database to filter out the style of this crime.

“We would have to look at each to see how ATM fits in,” Chafee said. “Might be an ATM card or someone took money from an ATM and was later robbed of it. We wouldn't be able to say it was ATM related without going through them.”

“There’s no standard definition of what an ATM crime is,” added Kurt Helwig, President and CEO of Electronic Funds Transfer Association. The sheer number of ATMs in the country, about 425,000 in Helwig’s estimate, also make it difficult to get an accurate figure. Out of the “billions” of ATM transactions that take place every year, Helwig guesses that the number of ATM crimes that occur every year might be “less than one-half percent.”

The FTC evaluated the use of emergency technologies under the “Credit Card Accountability Responsibility And Disclosure Act of 2009”. The financial institutions surveyed in the report believed that these emergency-PINs may not deter any type of ATM crime because a customer may be under too much stress to remember a variant of their PIN. The FTC also found one company, SafeAlert Systems, that sold “panic” button technology that would allow a customer to press a button to alert law enforcement officials that he or she is in danger.  

However, the panic button doesn’t disrupt or prevent a crime as the company recommends using the button only after the crime has already taken place. Additionally, the study found that the button would be pushed as a prank or by accident, sending false alarms that would divert law enforcement personnel and resources.

“Even if it was legitimate, the perpetrator is already going to be gone before the police get there,” Helwig said. There is also the fear of putting a victim in more danger. Helwig said video surveillance cameras and better lighting and landscaping are the most effective ways to deter crimes at the ATM for now.

“There is no foolproof method for preventing someone from perpetrating a crime,” Helwig said. “Just be aware of your surroundings, don’t go at night, and take your precautions with you.”

But if worst comes to worst and you find yourself in the middle of a crime, you should comply with the demands of the perpetrator, according to Jonathan Velline, Wells Fargo Senior Vice President of ATM and Store Strategy, in a letter he wrote to the FTC.

“A customer who is sounding an alarm might try to unsafely delay a perpetrator in the hopes that police will quickly respond; this could worsen an already unsafe situation,” Velline stated. Velline further clarified that Wells Fargo customers would not be liable for unauthorized transactions and that the surveillance cameras equipped on the majority of the bank’s ATMs can be used to help capture thieves.

In fact, in the Atlanta case mentioned above, the alleged armed robber was caught on camera clearly at a Bank of America ATM over the right shoulder of the victim. His parents recognized him and drove him to the police station for arrest.

Carlos Campos with Atlanta's Public Affairs Unit said that the city has not closely studied the use of emergency technologies at ATMs or their effectiveness. "In the unfortunate event they are the victim of a crime, we encourage them to be good witnesses and do the best they can to provide responding officers with a good description of the suspects and, if possible, their direction of travel," Campos said.

Tips for ATM safety

Emergency technologies at ATMs continue to be an ongoing debate and while they may not be mandated any time soon, there are still plenty of precautions to take at the ATM.  The ABA has useful tips here: Using an ATM

  • Be aware of your surroundings, particularly at night. If you observe or sense suspicious persons or circumstances, do not use the machine at that time.
  • Have your ATM card ready and in your hand as you approach the ATM. Don't wait to get to the ATM and then take your card out of your wallet or purse.
  • Visually inspect the ATM for possible skimming devices. Potential indicators can include sticky residue or evidence of an adhesive used by criminals to affix the device, scratches, damaged or crooked pieces, loose or extra attachments on the card slot, or noticeable resistance when pressing the keypad.
  • Be careful that no one can see you enter your PIN at the ATM. Use your other hand or body to shield the ATM keyboard as you enter your PIN into the ATM.
  • To keep your account information confidential, always take your receipts or transaction records with you.
  • Do not count or visually display any money you received from the ATM. Immediately put your money into your pocket or purse and count it later.
  • If you are using a drive-up ATM, be sure passenger windows are rolled up and all doors are locked. If you leave your car and walk to the ATM, lock your car.

Special Precautions for Using an ATM at Night

  • Park close to the ATM in a well-lighted area.
  • Take another person with you, if at all possible.
  • If the lights at the ATM are not working, don't use it.
  • If shrubbery has overgrown or a tree blocks the view, select another ATM and notify your bank.