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Explosive News Regarding ATMs
You've probably seen at least one video of a criminal attaching a chain from a truck an ATM to try to pull the ATM out of its mounts. Or maybe you've seen one of someone using a sledgehammer to try to smash an ATM open. Although these types of attacks are destructive, they do not rise to the level of the explosive attacks that have been taking place in Europe, Australia, and South America—and, just recently, in the United States. First reported about 10 years ago in Europe, their frequency has increased dramatically over the last several years.
I learned a bit about these and other ATM dangers at a conference I recently attended in Las Vegas on emerging functionality for ATMs and cash dispensers. One of the most interesting sessions was a presentation on ATM crimes that a U.S. Secret Service agent gave. The agent talked about the two major categories of ATM terminal crimes: logical and physical attacks. Criminals carry out logical attacks using software, skimming devices, or cameras. With software, they aim to gain access to the ATM software or operating system so they can intercept data transmissions or issue commands to dispense currency. With skimming or shimming devices and cameras, they can capture card and PIN data. A recent logical attack "jackpotted" an ATM—that was the first time in the United States that a criminal forced an ATM to dispense all its currency.
Criminals trying to blow up ATMs in Europe have predominately used gas. They pump a combustible gas like oxyacetylene, used in welding, into the ATM enclosure through a drilled hole, currency slot, or other entry point, and then detonate it. This 2015 Bloomberg Businessweek article describes explosive attacks in England in great detail.
Unfortunately, reports indicate that solid explosives such as dynamite, explosive gel, and C4 are becoming more common in Europe and South America. In Brazil, dynamite is the predominant explosive, in part because a large supply of dynamite was stolen from a mining operation. As expected, these attacks are highly destructive, not only to the ATM but also to the surrounding building, which you can see in the photo below (this ATM attack recently took place in Atlanta). Normally these attacks are carried out at ATMs in isolated locations at off-hours. Fortunately, I have not heard of any loss of life or injuries to innocent people from these attacks.
Because the frequency of these attacks is growing, ATM manufacturers and other third parties have developed countermeasures either to detect and thwart the attacks or to reduce the monetary value of a successful attack. For gas attacks, detection sensors installed in the ATM may do several things: trigger an audible—and monitored—alarm, release a gas-suppression system to prevent detonation, open a cover to prevent the gas pressure from building to a level that will detonate, or trigger a currency-staining mechanism that would put an ink stain on the currency in the machine, neutralizing its ability to be used. Additionally, penetration mats may be installed inside the ATM fascia that could detect drilling. Regrettably, attacks with solid explosives are more difficult to mitigate, but the industry has responded with harder enclosures and currency-inking neutralization systems.
We can hope that such attacks will not grow in frequency the United States, but security folks will probably tell us that we are being a bit Pollyannaish. Best be prepared.
By David Lott, a payments risk expert in the Retail Payments Risk Forum at the Atlanta Fed