Huffpost Politics
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Robin Sax Headshot

ATMurders Can Be Avoided

Posted: Updated:

ATM is practically synonymous with "stick up." Everyone knows that being at an ATM is like practically screaming, "I have cash, rob me!" ATMs are the perfect crime site: they are open 24 hours a day and the people going there are going to get money. Yup -- a perfect target!

So why aren't there better security measures to keep people safe while using ATMs? This issue has been around for at least two decades, but little progress has been made. How can that be? Well, it's not that it can't be done, it's simply that it's not being done. How can that be?

The concept of an emergency PIN system (or duress code) for ATM users has been around at least as far back as July 1986. That's when Congressman Mario Biaggi, a former police offer, proposed protection legislation. Unfortunately, his bill did not make it past committee hearings.

So far, state legislative efforts to require emergency PIN systems have appeared in Illinois, Kansas and Georgia, but none have succeeded to date.

In 1989 the issue of ATM murders drew more national attention when a prominent Jewish leader, Jerome Weber, was fatally shot over $40 at an ATM in west Los Angeles. A Chicago woman was also murdered in 1989 after bandits took her to an ATM to rob her of $500. There were some debates in the media afterwards, but no real action was taken.

In July of this year, we all mourned the tragic death of Lily Burk, who was abducted by Charles Samuel and slain. Police say surveillance video shows Burk and Samuel walking to an ATM in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles, just a few hours before her death. Also in July, McKenzie Carl Bryant was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for the 2008 fatal shooting of a federal employee during an attempted LA Westside ATM robbery.

It seems that, although individual cases abound, the issue of customer security is being ignored by the banking industry. Barry Schreiber, editor of ATM Security Newsletter and a Professor of Criminal Justice has said recently "the industry appears to have abandoned the issue of security probably because the number of ATM crimes is so small."

Schreiber cited the Bank Network News study of 12 billion ATM transactions in the U.S. that found only one robbery occurred for every 3.5 million transactions.

But the Electronic Funds Transfer Association (EFTA) estimates that a criminal attack occurs once in every 2-3 million transactions. The problem is this: few cities keep separate statistics for ATM-related crimes, so there is no way to be sure the EFTA figures are accurate. Data from some individual jurisdictions indicate that the EFTA's figures are indeed understated and that the true extent of the problem is not fully known.

For example, New York City police received reports of 743 robberies at ATMs last year alone, and Los Angeles County officials estimated in 2008 that 6 ATM robberies occur per there every day.

The only real safety in place at ATMs today is a "three L" system of security: lighting, landscaping, and location. That's it. No other technology is in place, nor is it required by law. However, there are many viable ideas of how to protect people better at ATMS. Here are a few:

ATM SafetyPIN software is one idea of how to protect people who use automated machines. It is a proposed software application that would allow users of any kind of ATM to alert the police if a forced cash withdrawal is happening. It works pretty simply: by entering the personal identification number (PIN) in reverse order, the police are alerted. The system was invented and patented by Illinois lawyer Joseph Zingher. For more information about Zingher's ideas, visit to his website

As of today, banks have not implemented a Safety Pin system of any kind. Why not? Cost is one reason, of course. Joe Zingher says that it would cost $10 million to install his software in all 270,000 ATMs in the US. But cost is not the only concern. Banks have also said that they're concerned about someone fumbling around trying to figure out how to put their pin in backwards. They worry that this might alert the thief that something is wrong and cause even more fatalities.

The ATM Industry Association has published a list of best practices for ATM operating software this year, but nowhere does it discuss the idea of Safety Pin software. Similarly, the American Bankers Association has a yearly policy issues page that notably leaves out the issue of safety software.

So what about putting an actual panic button on ATMs? The button could either alert the bank tellers inside of a robbery happening outside or call the local police (or both!). If potential criminals knew a panic button existed, would it deter them from committing assaults/robberies at the ATM? What about the issue of false alarms? Is it cost effective?

The company SafeAlert developed a type of panic button with their ATM911 Emergency Communications System.

Lawrence Steelman, president of SafeAlert, said the idea was developed specifically in response to a need for emergency communications at ATMs. The button is mounted through the faceplate of the ATM. The control unit is theft-proof and tamper resistant. When a customer pushes the 911 panic button, an immediate connection is made with the local police dispatcher, who can hear every noise within 20 feet of the machine. Other options include a card-only activation to deter prank calls and a linked security camera. It can be configured for both walk-up and drive-up ATMs.

Michael Boyd, whose wife Kimberly was brutally murdered in September 2005 after being forced to withdraw money from an ATM machine, proposes yet another safety idea:

ATM users need an option to purchase a second pin number that would be used in times of emergency. This pin number would be used specifically when someone is being made to withdraw money under duress. The pin would still allow money to be withdrawn (so the criminal does not know anything is wrong), but it would secretly signal a silent alarm inside the bank and dial 911 to that location.

This alarm would make the personnel inside the bank aware that the ATM user is in trouble and it gives the victim a fighting chance. It would allow the guards inside the bank an opportunity to help the victim at the ATM unit, as well as notifying nearby law enforcement agencies. More information about Boyd's idea can be found at: kimberlyboydlegacy.org.

Recently there was a proposed "Lily's Law" by Greig Smith, a Los Angeles politician who has argued that an ATM duress code could have saved Lily Burk's life. LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa supports Smith's idea.

"The tragic murder has highlighted a significant public safety issue: how safe are you at the ATM cash machine?" Greig Smith asked last week (reported in a Time Online article on September 6th). Smith estimated that it would cost banks just $25 per machine to modify card readers in order to "red flag" the reversed code and alert bank security and police. "The cash would still be disbursed so the robber would not be alerted, but help would be on the way," he told Time.

Some people may call all this proposed ATM safety "knee-jerk" legislation -- but the facts suggest this concept has been around for at least twenty-three years and possibly longer. What's more, thousands of people have been fatally hurt during attempted ATM robberies over the years. In 2008 alone, it was estimated by the EFTA that 60,000 Americans were held at gunpoint at ATMs. Hardly "knee-jerk" when it comes to passing a law!

Around the Web

Inglewood man convicted in ATM robbery killing - The Daily Breeze

Register To Vote