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ATMs — A Goldmine for Stealing Checks?

  • ATMS are more popular than ever
  • Their popularity makes ATMs ripe targets for thieves
  • Legislation has been introduced in the U.S. aimed at curtailing these thefts

As reported by the American Banking Institute, ATMs -- deposit and withdrawal devices that are more popular than ever -- are becoming goldmines for thieves.

ATMs have become lucrative targets for criminals, with the FBI reporting a significant increase in the number of bank ATM robberies beginning in 2020. As one banker noted during a panel discussion on ATM crime at ABA’s Annual Convention last year, it seems many would-be bank robbers have concluded there is less risk — and potentially more profit — in hitting an ATM than a teller window.

When most think of an ATM robbery, they will either imagine a criminal robbing a person using an ATM or a criminal using a large SUV or a truck to steal an ATM at a remote location -- typically a third-party ATM at a convenience store or other retail location. However, we've see a rash of ATMs located at actual banks (sometimes embedded into the wall) that are being ripped from their foundation.

ATMs are a Tempting Target

Why ATMs? As the ABA Banking Journal explains:

ATMs are tempting targets because they can be breached using unsophisticated tools and equipment, such as a pickup truck with chains, Gates says. And while many ATMs are equipped with engineering controls such as bollard gates or barriers, some criminals have figured out ways to compromise those devices.

At the same time, ATMs are sometimes placed in areas that offer low visibility, making criminals more confident that they can carry out their actions undetected, Gates adds. ATM thefts also typically only take a few minutes, and the legal penalties are significantly lighter than robberies carried out inside a bank.

“It’s very low-risk, very high-reward,” Gates says. “And if it’s possible for them to get a substantial amount of money and face a very low penalty, they’re going to focus on the ATM more than they’re going to focus on the branch.”

There is another nefarious reason for stealing an ATM from a bank location: hundreds -- if not thousands -- of stolen checks! Unlike third-party ATMs at remote retail locations, bank-located ATMs not only contain a large amount of cash, but also accept checks for deposit. Criminals are not only able to steal the cash inside, but also able sell the checks for fraud. What makes them even more tempting is that these checks will typically have an endorsement on the back -- making them much more valuable when depositing.

Government Responding?

In the U.S., efforts have been made to legislate against ATM crimes by codifying them under the Bank Robbery Act. For example, the ABA urged House Judiciary Committee leaders to support a bill in 2024 designed to do just that.

But banks cannot rely on just the government or local law enforcement to protect their customers. Yes, there is a significant amount of cash lost, which falls on the banks. However, the stolen checks become a much larger problem as they impact the bank and its customers.

Banks need to utilize a combination of transactional analyzers such as duplicate serial number identification -- if the fraudster choose to alter the check, the serial number of the check will have already been deposited -- and image forensic AI to analyze the images of check not only if for alterations, but also subtle differences if the fraudster chooses to create counterfeits.

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