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Bank Officials Raise Questions Over Safety of Automated Teller Machines - 2004-08-13

Automatic teller machines have become a vital part of the American landscape, dispensing cash on street corners, in stores and wherever a consumer might come up a bit short of funds. But someone has been making unauthorized withdrawals in the Atlanta area taking not just money, but the machines themselves using construction equipment to tear them out of the ground. Seven ATMS have been stolen in the Atlanta area in the past two months. The thefts raise questions about how safe ATMs are and what can be done to protect them.

Early one Saturday morning in July, someone made off with an ATM operated by the Bank of North Georgia.

"Someone drove into the bank with a forklift, proceeded to load the ATM on the forklift, pulled it out of the ground, took it down to a shopping center down the street, loaded it onto another vehicle and left with it," said David Cain, the company's head of security. "Left the forklift running and took off!"

A witness alerted police. Officials aren't saying how much cash was inside but the machine itself is worth $35,000. Mr. Cain says it was hardly an easy target. It weighed about 700 kilos, was encased in concrete, and was locked down with four big bolts and a metal bar. The other recent thefts were equally bold. FBI spokesman Steve Lazarus said it's likely whoever's behind the thefts has experience in construction.

"What's been happening is somebody, a person or persons, has been selecting ATMs at banks that are near construction sites, stealing a piece of heavy equipment from the construction site and driving it to the bank and using either a forklift, backhoe or bulldozer to try to rip the ATM lose, put it in the back of a truck and drive it away," he said.

Though it was unclear how many thefts were related, local media began blaming a "backhoe bandit." There may now be a face to that name. In late July, police arrested a man based on a tip, and the FBI charged him in two of the cases. Agents say investigations into all the thefts are continuing.

The ATM industry is taking notice. "Thankfully it's not a very common problem but it happens more frequently than you might suspect," said Rob Evans is spokesman for NCR, the world's largest maker of automated teller machines. He says fewer than one percent get stolen, but over the years ATMs have disappeared in Texas, parts of the West coast, and the New York City area. Most of the thefts take place overseas.

"The southeastern Asian market, Hong Kong had a real rough run of what they call 'smash and dash' or ram raids. We've seen them in Western Europe as well," he said.

But keeping their money machines safe from these types of thefts hasn't been high on the agenda for many American banks, according to Sherri Morgan, spokeswoman for the Bank of North Georgia.

"We would have never thought a forklift would drive up and pull an ATM out. I don't think anybody could rationalize something like that," he said.

Now, however, banks nationwide are beginning to consider new ATM security measures. Rob Evans of NCR says one approach is to make the cash in the ATM vault harder to access, since thieves probably could break into it once they've made off with the machine. Also, ATM makers are developing ways to destroy money with purple ink if a machine is moved. And they offer satellite tracking systems, although those signals can be disabled.

"What we've found more effective particularly in the Central American market is very high decibel noisemaker," he said. "And it has a double-edged effect, one is obviously to make life very uncomfortable for whoever is in the general proximity. And two, it's pretty easy for law enforcement to follow the wail of the noisemaker around."

It's not clear how soon such measures may catch on in the United States. But Mr. Evans says there's a simple step that could be taken immediately: giving more thought to where an ATM is placed. "In more highly visible, highly trafficked locations to make it tougher to angle in things like front-loaders and forklifts could be helpful," he said.

And when prevention doesn't work, he says, it's important to pursue stiff penalties against perpetrators making clear to potential copycats that driving off with an ATM just isn't worth the risk.