Friday, May 10, 2013

ATMs: Automated Theft Machines

Posted By on 05.10.13 at 03:00 PM

ATMs, now ubiquitous, werent trusted in their early years.
  • Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
  • ATMs, now ubiquitous, weren't trusted in their early years.
Be kind to your ATM today. The machines have been going through withdrawal lately, more than they're used to.

Federal prosecutors in Brooklyn unsealed an indictment yesterday against eight men charged with plundering ATMs across the world on two recent occasions. The ring, which consisted of an unusual combination of Internet hackers and street thieves, got a total of $45 million and then quickly laundered it, according to the prosecutors. It's not clear how much has been recovered, but no individuals are out any money.

Last December 21 and 22, "cashing crews" armed with plastic cards encoded with stolen account information took $5 million from the machines, in 4,500 transactions in 20 countries, including the U.S.

The account info came from computer hackers who infiltrated the system of an Indian company that processes Visa and MasterCard prepaid debit cards issued by a United Arab Emirates bank. The hackers had managed to eliminate withdrawal limits on some of the accounts. At least $382,000 was taken from New York City.

And the December heist may have been mostly a practice run. On February 19 and 20, the ATM bandits made off with another $40 million from machines in two dozen countries. In New York, 2,904 machines were robbed of $2.4 million in ten hours. This theft also involved prepaid debit cards, issued by a bank in Oman.

One of the prosecutors said yesterday that surveillance photos of a suspect at various ATMs showed his backpack getting heavier and heavier. I'm hoping the security photos also show that some of the thieves had trouble lining up the magnetic stripe.

Forty-five million sounds like a serious heist, but remember that it's 11 million fewer than Adam Dunn is pilfering from the White Sox, although Dunn's robbery is being perpetrated over four years.

ATMs have been burgled before, of course, in less sophisticated ways. In March, two Illinois men were charged with stealing two entire ATMs last year in the Quad City area. One of the machines was taken from a mall with the help of a John Deere utility vehicle that also had been stolen. The ATM was found a month later in a ravine behind a high school.

You probably know that "ATM" is short for automated teller machine. But if you're under age 30, you may be wondering what a "teller" is. True story: at one time you had to walk into a bank to get your money out of it. You'd stand in a line, and eventually have face time with an employee behind a counter. You'd hand this "teller" your passbook, and he or she would stamp a record of the transaction into it, and give you your cash, keenly counting out the bills like a professional card dealer. It didn't all have to be in 20s. Every three months, there'd be the special thrill of the teller stamping your interest in the book. There was no service charge for the visit.

ATMs began proliferating in the late 1970s. People didn't trust them at first, but most got over their fears. My dad never did. He only wanted to deal with flesh-and-blood tellers, whom he didn't totally trust either. He wasn't going to be suckered into paying a machine a service fee.

In his latter years, he began believing that the safest place for his money was his house, which was on Chicago's southwest side. He started making bigger and bigger withdrawals.

He was 85 the last time we visited his bank, which was on Archer Avenue. Like a lot of people with poor hearing, he tended to speak loudly. "I WANT TEN THOUSAND DOLLARS, IN CASH," he bellowed at the teller. Fortunately he displayed his passbook, and the teller realized it was a withdrawal and not a holdup. The bank was crowded, but most of the people were old, and we got back to his house without being followed. As always, he stuffed the bills in assorted closets and dressers and cubbyholes. He was delighted to have saved the service fee.

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