ATM Crimes Spur Calls for Better Security

The goal of the class-action lawsuit filed in Chicago last month against the Cash Station automated teller machine network is simply some "reasonable personal security" for ATM users, says plaintiff's lawyer Clinton Krislov. After a 24-year-old woman was dragged from her door at 2 a.m., forced to withdraw $400 from an ATM, then shot, the plaintiffs, representing 2.04 million cardholders, sued for alarms or buttons or some other way to summon help.

Many crimes associated with the nation's 80,000 ATMs involve customers, sometimes disastrously. More common than forced withdrawals are muggings: the cardholder withdraws card and money, and is promptly robbed by someone waiting nearby.

The ATM crime problem has been well-aired, and well-argued. Everyone agrees that a money faucet on the street means trouble, particularly when 80% of transactions are withdrawals, but they disagree about the extent of the problem and who's responsible. Consumers say that since banks vigorously market the 24-hour service, they should provide 24-hour security. Banks say consumers should protect themselves from obvious dangers with a little common sense.

Everyone argues about whether the problem is big or little. The industry cites American Bankers Assn. figures from 1986, indicating that 961 member banks had only 220 assaults, robberies or muggings of customers that year (90% took place at outside ATMs). It also quotes a report from the Bank Administration Institute in Chicago that concluded there was only one such crime in 3.5 million transactions that year.

But at that rate, one can expect 1,531 this year, says the Nilson Report, a Santa Monica-based industry newsletter. "Only one in 44,938 (active ATM customers) will be victimized," it reported, "but that's an average 4.2 crimes daily and one for every 45 machines."

Size of Problem Debated

Yet unlike bank robberies, ATM-related crimes may go unreported, even to the bank. Police may record ATM muggings under all robberies or street crimes. Newspapers cover many such incidents, but hardly all.

"If you find a few, you probably have an epidemic," says Norman Bottom, a security consultant in Miami. "Only 40% of crimes are reported."

Everyone also argues about safeguards. Banks train employees about what to do during a bank robbery and equip the facilities with a variety of safeguards, but they provide little security for the after-hours ATM customer.

Some banks "limit the hours of a machine where we see a pattern of incidents," says Deborah McWhinney, B of A's vice president, Versatel services. Many position ATM machines on the front, rather than side of buildings, less hidden from traffic. Almost all clear shrubbery and increase lighting to provide visibility.

Some relatively low-crime ATMs are in enclosed vestibules, accessible after hours by customer card, and often containing phones for 24-hour customer assistance. Virtually limited to northeastern cities, they may have less crime because of the savvy of urban customers or heavy foot traffic. Usually well-lit, with glass fronts, they also give both customer and passers-by a "picture window approach" to safety, says Bill Ahearn, spokesman for New York-based Citibank.

Some, but hardly all ATMs have cameras and alarms. "Transaction" cameras are most common, trained on the user's face to document the transaction if it's later disputed. Some have wide-angle "surveillance" cameras taking in the whole scene. But "they're not going to prevent a crime," says Philip Strick, vice president and security director at First Commerce Corp. in New Orleans, and may not even be a deterrent to "someone desperate and drug-crazed enough."

Alarm buttons, such as those provided for bank tellers or ATM service teams, wouldn't help customers robbed while departing, bankers say. They would also invite false alarms and a lot of "crank and prank calls," says Boris Melnikoff, senior vice president of First Atlanta Bank and chair of the American Bankers Assn. risk management committee.

It might help someone at the machine, however, and maybe save a life, says attorney Krislov. A button or emergency code "could signal 'Send help,' " he says. The young Chicago victim, who later died, was at the machine at least 4 minutes, and "the police response time there is very good."

There are other possibilities, says Bottom, including non-silent alarms. Contrary to popular myth that such alarms drive criminals berserk, says Bottom, "criminals don't like noise and light. If you want to drive them away, have an alarm and strobe lights."

The ultimate question is whether banks and other financial institutions have to do anything. A bill requiring special protections for ATM customers foundered in 1986 when its congressional sponsor, Mario Biaggi, foundered in the Wedtech scandal, and comprehensive state laws have suffered similar fates. In California, for example, assemblyman Charles Calderon (D-Alhambra), has introduced a bill every year, setting standards for lighting, landscaping, location, and operating hours of ATMs; opposed by the banking industry, it has never passed.

Privately, banks may take responsibility for such crimes, even beyond federal law, which limits customer liability to $50 in unauthorized withdrawals. The banks surveyed by the BAI reported settling 22 of 32 lawsuits filed by victims of ATM crimes of violence. And although they have no legal obligation to customers robbed after leaving ATMs, many big banks quietly pay their claims.

The industry's public stance is tougher, backed by those statistics, such as they are. "Certainly events are going to occur," says Strick, but "the numbers are minuscule. If there were people getting murdered at ATMs every day, we'd have a greater problem and one the industry would have to respond to."

"Every day" shouldn't be necessary: banks could surely devise some aid for customers making forced withdrawals. But those making elective visits can partly protect themselves, by carefully selecting time, place and company. It's just "common sense," says Melnikoff. "If you see someone hanging around, don't use the machine."

Or, until they're safer, don't use them as much. Banks respond more quickly to changes in transaction volume.

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