ATM Crime: More and more Machines Get Withdrawn

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Smash and grab ATM theft is this recession’s hip crime (Getty images)

Call it the total ATM withdrawal. In the past year, as the economic slump has dragged on, robbers around the country are increasingly trying a new method to get their hands on cash. They’re no longer swiping stolen cards in automated teller machines. More and more thieves are swiping the machine, itself.

ATM theft, it appears, is this recession’s hottest crime. There were more than 100 instances of teller machine robberies in Texas alone in 2010. In San Diego, thieves have snatched or attempted to make off with ATMs 28 times in the past year. That’s up from 2 cases of the crime in the year before. In Atlanta, which has also seen a spike in ATM crime, as many as 35 machines have disappeared this year, up from 12 in 2009. “The suburbs are starting to see some ATM thefts, too,” says Archie Ezell, a supervising gang investigator in the Atlanta Police Department. “This is definitely a crime that has some legs.”

It is also a crime that takes a number of pairs of legs to pull off. Just to lift the machines can require as many as four men. ATM heists are fairly messy and labor intensive. They typically happen at convenience stores late at night. In most instances, thieves will back a stolen pick-up truck to a store’s front door, before smashing the windows. Robbers then loop a chain attached to the truck around the target ATM. The truck yanks the machine, along with the front doors and anything else in the way, into the parking lot. The robbers lift the machine onto their flatbed and drive, quickly, off.

And that’s just to get the machine. Even after the getaway, the thieves still have to break into the ATM’s safe, which typically requires a blowtorch. Lastly, to cover their tracks, most ATM heists end with the robbers setting fire to the stolen vehicle as well as the machine. Still, some ATM thieves are much more gentile genteel. Last September, an ATM was stolen from a suburban Philadelphia hospital during visiting hours. How did they thieves pull it off? Easily, it appears. Armed with a clipboard, a dolly and wire cutters, the two robbers calmly detached the machine from the wall, loaded it up on their dolly and walked out of the hospital. No one said a thing. Security cameras show the pair holding the door and letting others go first on their way out. Etiquette always pays.

No group keeps an official tab on ATM swipes, but experts say the relatively new crime is increasing rapidly. The theft has become so popular that videos of it have appeared on the Internet. (see below) Other than the recession, it’s not exactly clear why ATM theft is hot. In terms of overall crime, the recent recession has not seen the jump you’d expect in tougher economic times. Bank robberies are down this year, after rising in 2009.

Yet instances of so-called smash-and-grab ATM theft is rising in many areas of the country. One of the reasons is that in the past decade there has been a dramatic rise in the number of money machines that are located at convenience stores and gas stations. These are easier targets for robbers than bank-located machines, which are typically better guarded and harder to grab. And in most states criminal penalties are much less severe for ATM theft than for armed robbery or for breaking into a bank. What’s more, for anti-social thieves it’s an appealing crime. “One of the reasons people like it is because you can do it late at night,” says J.R. Roberts of Securities Strategies.”You don’t have to confront anyone.”

And ATM theft can be quite lucrative. The average size machine can hold as much as $200,000, though few do. In off hours, most machines contain less than $10,000. Still, news of a number of recent big scores ATM thefts have probably only made the crime more popular. In the Philadelphia hospital case, the thieves made off with $96,000. A pair of robberies in the Dallas area last year netted over $200,000.

As a result, law officials have been beefing up their investigations of these crimes. Earlier this year, San Diego police formed a task force specifically dedicated to ATM theft. They have since busted three crews that were particularly active. Police say they usually find blood at the crime scenes either from breaking into the stores or from struggling to get the machine away. In Georgia, a law went into effect in July that ups the jail time for so-called smash-and-grab crimes, in part to combat the rising number of ATM thefts.

But while the arrests in San Diego has slowed the instances of ATM theft, it still hasn’t put the crime totally on ice. Just a few weeks ago, robbers yanked an ATM machine out of a local 7-11. Thankfully, this new crew was less experienced. The machine fell off the back of the thieves’ truck as they drove off.

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