The Cash-Machine Capers

By Sutherl, Benjamin | Newsweek International, May 26, 2008 | Go to article overview

The Cash-Machine Capers


Sutherl, Benjamin, Newsweek International


Byline: Benjamin Sutherland

Forcing open cash machines is risky work. Those who try with a car must smash into the hunk of steel driving at least 40kph for a shot at success--and ATMs often withstand even faster charges, says Travis Yates, head driving trainer at the Tulsa Police Department in Oklahoma. Some thieves drag dislodged machines away to open with a blowtorch, but that's hardly any more discreet than ram raids. And many new ATMs release a blast of ink when jarred, ruining the cash inside. Increasingly, the machines are placed behind heavy metal barriers or inside shops, or both, to thwart attacks. If you're an old-school ATM thief, "you're more than likely going to end up disappointed," says Yates.

Still, theft from ATMs is up--it leapt to [euro]468 million in Europe last year, an increase of [euro]131 million over 2006, according to a new report by the Edinburgh-based nonprofit European ATM Security Team. Thieves are using new electronic tricks to steal data from ATM cards, often with electronic spying equipment that can be store-bought for as little as $100, says Randy Vanderhoof, head of the Princeton Junction, New Jersey-based Smart Card Alliance, an industry group promoting safe electronic transactions. The cheap gizmos are also being used to capture credit- and debit-card details while consumers pay at shops and restaurants. Preventing electronic theft "is a lot more difficult" than stopping physical attacks, Vanderhoof says.

One particularly devious device, called a "skimmer,'' has a slot that reads the magnetic strip. When no one is looking, thieves fit the skimmer over the real card slot so it can copy ATM-card data, which is later used to duplicate cards. Customers sometimes notice skimmers protrude from ATM facades, so some thieves now install false facades. One former ATM thief, interviewed by NEWSWEEK in Paris, says his team built a fake aluminum ATM facade in a machinist shop and placed it over an ATM in Bonifacio, on the French island of Corsica. "A Wi-Fi camera captured the PINs,'' said the thief, who requested anonymity because he broke the law. "I was in a hotel across the street recording the video.'' (The facade's glue eventually came undone on a sweltering afternoon; he quit the gang, spooked by an ultimately unsuccessful police investigation.)

Bogus facades account for more than half of all ATM skimming operations that have been discovered in Britain. They're surprisingly realistic, says Jemma Smith, spokeswoman for the London-based Association of Payment Clearing Services, an industry group.

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