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Unauthorized ATM withdrawals all the rage

Police report an alarming rise in ATM thefts. Not thefts at ATMs —thefts of the entire machines themselves.
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Sometime after midnight on June 13 — Friday the 13th — someone rammed a stolen pickup truck through the front of Sayeed Ali’s gasoline station in Houston.

The truck got stuck, so the miscreants had to abandon their target: the station’s automated teller machine. They weren’t there to steal the money from the ATM; they were there to steal the entire machine — keyboard, screen, vault and all.

“This is the first time something like this has ever happened to this store in over 10 years,” said Ali, the station’s manager. But then he added something that police around the country already know: “My brother just told me that this is happening everywhere, especially this kind of thing targeting the ATM.”

Houston police said the June 13 break-in was at least the seventh operation by a ring of smash-and-grab operators who steal large pickup trucks and crash them into storefronts to get at the ATM. They attach a chain to the back of the truck, wrap it around the ATM and yank the machine out of the store.

Other thieves, especially in rural areas dotted with construction sites, bring in a stolen forklift and just drive off with the ATM.

The whole operation can take less than five minutes, and if the ATM has been recently replenished, the thieves can get away with tens of thousands of dollars — assuming they can figure out how to crack open the vault.

And for a variety of reasons, police said, the crime is spiking in astonishing numbers this year.

Organized rings pull off hundreds of jobs
The FBI tracks ATM thefts in its annual Bank Crime Statistics survey. In 2006, the last year for which complete figures are available, 119 thefts of ATMs were reported to the FBI. That was pretty consistent — since 2000, the number has swung roughly between 100 and 200.

Already this year, authorities report more than 140 ATM thefts in North Texas alone, mainly in the Dallas area. Police say organized rings may have been at work there and in Houston, Atlanta, San Diego and Los Angeles; multiple thefts have also been reported in numerous other cities, from Hartford, Conn., to Detroit to Honolulu.

The sharp rise in attempted thefts across the country emerged late last year. No one really knows why ATMs have become such a popular target, but police offer a couple of theories.

First, ATMs appear to offer an unlimited stream of cash, making them attractive in tough economic times. That can be deceiving, however. If you pick the wrong time to make off with one — before it has been restocked — you will have gone to a tremendous amount of risk and effort for very little money.

And while stealing an ATM from a bank is a federal felony, it is a lesser crime in most jurisdictions — often simple theft or criminal mischief —  if the ATM is plucked from a store, a restaurant or a standalone kiosk.

Those ATMs are also usually smaller (and therefore lighter), and they are commonly less well-secured than bank machines — many of them stand out in the open on convenience store floors.

Sometime in the past year or so, crooks figured out that they’re not impossible to snatch.

“It’s more of an opportunity for them,” Dallas police Sgt. Gil Cerda said. “It’s an easier opportunity for them.”

Still, that doesn’t mean it’s an easy job.

Last month, three men burst into a convenience store in South Salt Lake, Utah. While two of the men distracted the clerk, the third went behind the counter. Surveillance video showed the relatively small man, with tattoos down both arms, trying to wrestle the ATM from its bolted-down footing.

South Salt Lake police Lt. Gary Keller said the men left empty-handed.

“It certainly was humorous, because what’s he going to do with a 300- to 400-pound machine once he gets it loose?” Keller said.

Next hurdle: Getting at the money
Even assuming you get away with ripping out an ATM and managing to drive off with it, there is the problem of what to do with a sealed metal vault.

Last week, police in Miramar, Fla., recovered an ATM and a dump truck that had been used to steal it. The thieves had been able to only partly open the machine.

“I can tell you, it’s not really easy,” said Patrick Pluvios, an ATM technician in the Miami area. “Even us, as a technician, we cannot get that open.”

Likewise, two men came up empty in May with an ATM they stole from a bank in Grandview, Mo., even though they were apparently slick enough to have first gotten away with stealing:

  • A black Chevrolet truck, which they used to ram into the bank.
  • A backhoe, which they used to lift the ATM out of the bank.
  • And a trailer, into which they loaded the stolen ATM with the stolen backhoe.

Even those crack thieves couldn’t figure out how to break open the vault, from which police found no money missing when they recovered the ATM.

‘It’s on our front burner’
And yet, thieves are “almost hitting on a daily basis,” said Senior Cpl. Kevin Janse of the Dallas police. “The number of ATM offenses has increased significantly this year, and it’s on our front burner.”

Financial institutions, security companies and ATM manufacturers are switching tactics, essentially acknowledging that their ATMs will disappear despite their best efforts. The focus now is on developing ways to track ambulatory ATMs and recover them before they can be cleaned out.

Satellite tracking systems have intrigued the companies for years, but cost and technological hurdles delayed widespread acceptance until only recently, according to ATM Marketplace, a publication affiliated with the ATM Advertising Council. Authorities report several successful recoveries this year of stolen ATMs tracked by GPS before the thieves could get at the cash.

Just minutes after an ATM was ripped from a bank in Lawrenceville, Ga., in January, Gwinnett County police had their suspect in custody, thanks to a tracking device the bank had installed.

The bank and police were notified that the ATM was on the move when an alarm sounded in the middle of the night. Police spotted the stolen ATM in the bed of a pick-up truck on an interstate highway.

During the ensuing chase, the driver tried to turn right into an apartment complex, but the weight of the ATM caused the truck to flip over. The ATM was recovered intact and the suspect, who suffered minor injuries, was arrested, solving a string of ATM thefts around the Atlanta area over several months, police said.

Law enforcement authorities are also trying other ideas.

In Dallas, by far the the hardest-hit area in the country, police have reclassified stealing an ATM as a violent crime, allowing them to give pursuit and respond with force, not to mention bring stiffer charges.

“We just don’t want any citizens or store employees to get hurt, and we’ve got to get these guys off the streets as quick as possible,” Janse said.