Cash trap: How an ingenious ATM solution led cops right to robbers
As president of Cash Connect, a provider of cash and cash management for approximately 25,000 ATMs in the U.S., Tom Stevenson has seen pretty much everything in terms of ATM attacks.
But a spate of burglaries that began in early 2016 was unlike anything he'd seen before.
That's when Cash Connect lost $400,000 within 90 days in a rash of attacks against ATMs located in drugstores in the San Diego area, which were all part of the same chain serviced by the company. Like many in-store cash dispensers, these were lower-cost machines without high-security vaults.
The MO was the same in each attack, Stevenson said. After cutting the phone line, the thieves would pop open the sliding doors at the front of the store, crowbar open the vault and grab the cash.
Eventually, they got so fast that they quit bothering to cut the phone line, knowing they'd be gone before police could respond to an alarm. Surveillance video at one of the drugstores showed that from start to finish, a hit took less than 60 seconds.
The 10-second solution
In response to the attacks, the drugstore chain first tried changing the locks on its sliding doors. "That worked really well for about 10 seconds ... and then they just kicked the glass in," Stevenson said.
Next, Cash Connect persuaded the chain to install cameras and reduce the amount of cash stored in the ATMs, which typically were loaded once a month and invariably were robbed within 36 hours of loading.
As expected, after a few low-yield attacks of $2,000–$3,000 instead of the usual $20,000–$30,000, the San Diego thefts stopped. That's when the ATM attacks began at the drugstore chain's locations 120 miles north in Los Angeles.
At that point, Cash Connect called in its security partner 3Si to help them come up with a solution that would not just drive criminals from one major metro area to the next, but that would instead deliver them into the waiting handcuffs of police.
A 'deep cover' GPS device
The companies immediately dismissed the idea of standard GPS devices placed inside the ATM, since the drugstore ATMs themselves were not being stolen. Tracking devices in the cash canisters were useless, too, since those were being left behind, as well.
What was needed was a device that could be tucked in with the rest of the cash and would be virtually undetectable to the thieves.
Since it might also go undetected by a CIT employee picking up residual cash from an ATM, it would need to send a first alert somewhere other than a 911 center. Otherwise the CIT driver could wind up in an armed standoff with police — with neither party sure that the other was who they claimed to be.
Eventually, 3SI came up with 1/4-inch thick device sandwiched into a packet of bank notes. Ingeniously, the notes at each end of the packet were left free and could be fanned just like any stack of bills.
To save battery life, the device was designed to begin frequent pinging only when removed from the safe. Should this occur, notification would go first to Cash Connect or 3Si, who would call the CIT carrier before contacting police.
Setting the cash trap
With 10 devices ready to go, Cash Connect identified the 10 drugstore locations in the L.A. area that seemed most likely to be hit by the ATM hit crew. At 5:30 p.m., the devices were placed in the safes. At 4 a.m., the pinging began.
Police tracked the device to a Chevron station, where they arrested two known gang members in possession of the cash and the tracking device. Two other suspects fled the scene and were chased down by police.
A raid at the apartment of one of the suspects yielded another two gang members and $60,000 in stolen cash.
Best of all, with the arrests, the drugstore ATM thefts stopped literally overnight.
The force multiplier: 292 arrests and counting
Remarks by Travis Martinez, assistant chief of police in Redlands, California, backed up Stevenson's experience.
"We're looking for ways to get in direct contact with these crooks and that's why we're using GPS tracking," he said.
Martinez came up with the idea of employing GPS when his department experienced deep budget cuts during the Great Recession, shrinking from 90 officers to 72.
Initially his idea met with skepticism, but doubts dissolved when a laptop fitted with a GPS device ended a persistent rash of car burglaries in an LA Fitness parking lot. Police caught the thief and recovered a stockpile of stolen items.
Since then, the Redlands police department has used GPS trackers in nearly 300 arrests, Martinez said. "It's really a force multiplier."
He said that ATM deployers should consider installing GPS privately and connecting them to police computer systems. Then, if an attack occurs, dispatch receives an immediate alert and police have a chance at apprehending a suspect.
"It's really a game-changer. It's really allowed us to have a chance at catching these guys."
This is the second of two features covering a workshop last week at the ATMIA US Conference that dealt with ATM physical attacks. (Read the first article.)
Companies: Cash Connect
Suzanne’s editorial career has spanned three decades and encompassed all B2B and B2C communications formats. Her award-winning work has appeared in trade and consumer media in the United States and internationally. She is now the editor of ATMmarketplace.com and WorldofMoney.comwww