Chicago inventor Joseph Zingher has a good reason to look sour. Given the circumstances, Zingher, 45, should be shopping for a retirement home in sunny Florida. Instead, he's broke and lodging with his brother.
Zingher is the inventor and patent holder for the ATM SafetyPIN software. Say you get held up at night withdrawing money from a teller machine. Type in your PIN backwards and the ATM will call the cops, just like dialing 911 or pushing a panic button. The robber won't know a thing, since the transaction will proceed and money will be dispensed.
On Jan. 1, Illinois enacted a law asking banks and ATM providers in the state to incorporate such reverse-pin safety catch into their terminals. A similar bill is moving through the state senate in Kansas, where three people were forced to withdraw money from an ATM and were later murdered in 2002.
A boon for Zingher and his company Zi-Cubed, of which he's the president and sole employee? Maybe not.
Problem is, banks aren't interested, and Illinois legislators watered down the original language of the law. It now provides that terminals "may, rather than must, be designed to send an alarm when a personal identification number is entered in reverse order."
The amended language got banks effectively off the hook. "Under the circumstances, I wasn't even able to give the damn thing away," grumbles Zingher.
Zingher, a former member of the U.S. Army Military Police, got the idea for SafetyPIN in 1994, when he needed cash in a bad part of town. He paid $500 to a computer science major to write the simple code that would recognize reversed, inverted or otherwise altered PIN as a distress signal, and instructed the teller machine to call the cops. He filed for a patent the same year.
In March 1998, the U.S Patent and Trademark Office awarded Zingher patent number 5,731,575. He spent the last six years shopping the idea to banks in Illinois, as well as Georgia and Florida.
So far, he has found no takers. By his own counting, he spent over $100,000 on patent applications, research studies and marketing to push the software.
Zingher says that banks aren't interested in advertising ATMs as potential crime sites. "When you talk to the bankers, they all love the idea," he says. "But they also want to know who else is using it. Everybody wants to be second, nobody wants to be first."
Zingher insists that his numbers bear out that safety is a big issue for debit-card users. Most police departments do not tally ATM-related crimes. But a report Zingher commissioned from the polling firm Zogby International showed that more than half of surveyed ATM users were concerned about their safety while withdrawing money. Another study showed that 30 percent passed by an ATM because of safety worries.
Banks shrug such numbers. Thomas Kelly, spokesman for Chicago's Bank One, calls Zingher's pitching "relentless." His bank isn't buying it, though. "The best advice we give to people is to exercise caution and look at their surroundings," he says. "There are lots of people who fumble with their PINs. We wouldn't want to cause false alarms."
Zingher says that it would cost $10 million to install his software in all 270,000 ATMs in the United States.
By no means is Zingher giving up. Although "plain broke," he has filed for three more patents, one incorporating biometrics, such as collecting fingerprints and iris scans into his system. He offered to let Kansas banks use his software for free, hoping it would catch on elsewhere.
Zingher needs to move fast: The ATM security business is catching the eye of the big boys. On January 20, IBM received a patent for its own "duress PIN" system. Although IBM, whose patent cites Zingher's invention, says it has no immediate plans to use the technology, Zingher may soon find himself wrestling with the Big Blue, rather than counting greenbacks.