Bill to make ATMs safer meets resistance from banks

Type:  Coverage 

By Deirdre Fernandes

The Boston Globe


The robbery and murder last summer of a South Boston woman who was forced to withdraw money from several automatic teller machines spurred support for legislation aimed at increasing security at ATMs across Massachusetts. But the bill has made little progress, opposed by the state’s banking industry.


The legislation, still before the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Financial Services, would require banks, convenience stores, and small grocers to improve lighting around automated teller machines, include an emergency call option on cash dispensers, and limit parking around ATMs.


“Anything that can be done to make it safer for the customers is what we should be thinking about,” said Representative Kay Khan, a Newton Democrat who is cosponsoring the legislation. “It’s a public safety issue.”


But banking industry officials say such measures are expensive and unproven, and would probably not have prevented last summer’s tragedy. Amy Lord was kidnapped July 23 as she left her apartment, forced by her attacker into her Jeep Cherokee, and then driven to several ATMs where he made her withdraw cash.


Edwin Alemany, of Boston, is accused of fatally stabbing and strangling Lord and allegedly using the stolen money to pay for a new cellphone and cellphone bills. Alemany has pleaded not guilty.


The security measures proposed in the legislation would not necessarily prevent another such violent incident, said Daniel Forte, president of the Massachusetts Bankers Association. No research shows that emergency buttons, which would be expensive to install, are effective in preventing ATM robberies, he said.


Many banks already videotape transactions, Forte added. Some of the proposals in the legislation, such as increased lighting can be a problem in suburban areas, he said.

“It really proposes a one-size fits all,” Forte said. “Given the millions and millions of ATM transactions that occur on a regular basis, an ATM transaction is really safe.”


The bankers association spent $38,500 fighting against this legislation and other bills during the last half of 2013, according to state lobbying records.


The association estimates that in the past year there were 24 ATM robberies in Massachusetts, compared with 250 robberies that occurred inside bank buildings.


Nationwide, there were 51 robberies that involved ATMS in 2011, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Meanwhile, 4,870 robberies occurred at bank counters.


Industry officials said they are particularly concerned about requirements that banks install some way of contacting police at the ATM, including using an emergency personal identification number, such as a consumer’s security number in reverse.


No banks have that type of technology, and it is questionable that a customer being held at gunpoint would remember an identification number in reverse, said Sam M. Ditzion, chief executive of Boston-based Tremont Capital Group, who has served as a consultant for financial institutions and the ATM Industry Association.


And even if they did enter the emergency number, police usually wouldn’t arrive until three to five minutes after they are notified, plenty of time for the criminal to escape, Ditzion said.

“The best thing to do is be aware of your surroundings,” he said. “Most importantly, if you do get robbed, cooperation is generally your best option to staying safe.”


The Federal Trade Commission, which studied ATM safety in 2010, found that even though reverse-identification numbers and alarm button technologies hadn’t been tested widely, it was questionable that the number of crimes the security measures might prevent would be worth the costs of installing and maintaining them.


David Breen, an associate professor at Boston University School of Law and longtime advocate for ATM safety, said there is no guarantee that any of the requirements in the proposed legislation could have helped Lord.


But many of them are common-sense measures that all banks and companies that have ATMs should implement, he said.


Breen, a former prosecutor in Manhattan, was shot during an ATM robbery in 1991. Many banks have improved safety around ATMs since then, with cameras, lighting and reflective mirrors so consumers can see what is happening behind them, he said.


“Why not codify it, so the outliers are doing it too?” Breen asked.