Protecting against ATM smash-and-grabs

Protecting against ATM


By Scott Thomas

Across the United States, banks have experienced a significant increase in theft attempts related to automated teller machines (ATMs). In 2021, Travelers insurance companies saw a 257% year-over-year increase in the number of insurance claims related to ATM smash-and-grab thefts. In Houston alone, more than 50 members of an organized crime group targeting ATMs were arrested by the FBI.

Based on surveillance video, these thefts followed a similar pattern. A crowbar was used to pry the front door of a unit open. Then, stolen trucks or construction equipment were used to pull a safe door — or in some cases the entire ATM — out, exposing cash inside. The entire theft was accomplished in under five minutes. Even when the robbery attempt was unsuccessful, the significant damages to ATMs result in repair or replacement costs for banks, and loss of use for customers.

In response to this growing threat, banks are increasing ATM protection by investing in new technologies and systems that strengthen and unify security operations and help prevent or deter attacks.

Older video technology is limited

Most banks use video surveillance cameras located in and around their on-property ATMs. Those in other spaces may still utilize a covert, onboard camera inside the machine. These cameras typically have an onboard device for recording video, designed to capture evidence associated with fraudulent card use, skimming and jackpotting which worked well for those purposes. However, with brute force ATM attacks, the evidence recorder itself is often damaged, destroyed or lost during the theft attempt. 

Another drawback to this technology is that retrieving video from the ATM is a manual process. The first generation of these devices required opening the unit, disconnecting the recorder and replacing it on a rotational basis. Eventually, this evolved to networking the units which allowed for some remote investigation. However, depending on the ISP connection, finding and downloading relevant evidence became time consuming. Additionally, this technology didn’t send alerts if a camera or recorder malfunctioned or went offline. Often the only way these events became known was when evidence from that specific unit was needed. 

Advanced surveillance technology is proactive

Today, bank security professionals want proactive threat detection and system health notifications with fast, reliable evidence acquisition. A new method for achieving these goals involves using advanced video management systems (VMS) with centralized or cloud storage options. 

Advanced threat detection for ATMs is commonly achieved via video analytics where, when set on a schedule, an alert is sent if there are vehicles or multiple individuals near a unit. These notifications, along with the corresponding video, are immediately sent to third-party monitoring companies or the bank’s security operations center (SOC) to determine if there’s an imminent threat or just a late-night patron. Options such as unit movement sensors and door contacts can be added to ATMs and integrated with the camera feed by the VMS. Speakers or strobe lights can also be added to ATMs located on the bank property. These can be manually or automatically activated and multiple conditions can be set before devices are triggered, such as the time of event, number of persons and unit movement. The sound of a siren or voice indicating law enforcement is en route may be enough to deter potential thieves. 

Banks can also use automatic license plate recognition (ALPR) to record plates and characteristics of suspicious vehicles, store that data and automate alert notifications. It can be used forensically to search for times a specific plate was identified, potentially casing an ATM location. This could provide better evidence of suspicious individuals than simply looking at a nighttime video.

For indoor ATM locations, banks are implementing advanced access control systems that ensure only customers with valid bank cards can access ATMs after hours. This approach can also help prevent individuals from sleeping in lobbies or undertaking other unwanted behaviors near ATMs.

Centralized or cloud evidence recording and sharing 

Recording video inside ATMs is challenging. The latest innovation for enterprise-class video management systems enables banks to send video to their centralized storage or hosted-in-cloud data centers. Both options eliminate the possibility of a recorder being destroyed or lost inside the ATM. 

In a centralized architecture, video can remain within the bank’s network, closed to the internet. The cameras stream video at the desired resolution and frame rate back to the desired storage array. The cameras house onboard SD cards to serve as a backup in case of a temporary network outage. If that occurs, any video missed is streamed back to central storage during periods with no activity.

If network and IT resources to support centralized architecture aren’t available, enterprise cloud-hosted storage should be a consideration. This video-as-a-service (VaaS) design offers maintenance-free management. Updates to the system are done by the VMS on the cloud server.

VaaS reduces redundancy, as recorded video is mirrored across multiple data centers. Depending on security policy and regulatory requirements, video evidence in the cloud can be stored indefinitely, eliminating the need to add hardware for video storage in a centralized architecture. Both solutions offer health monitoring. If a camera were to go offline, system administrators can be notified immediately. 

The final consideration is how easy the evidence is to share. Video is typically recorded in a proprietary codec, watermarked to guarantee it hasn’t been tampered with. The challenge comes when this video needs to be shared internally or outside the organization. Selecting an enterprise-class VMS will enable browser-based sharing for stakeholders to securely view evidence as needed.

Unification with other physical security platforms

Beyond ATM security, these solutions can be leveraged in branches, offices, vaults and data centers. A unified, enterprise-class VMS platform with open architecture is key in bringing security components together — unifying video with access control, intrusion panels and software, including teller transaction monitoring. 

Unification allows the operator to view, interact and access data from a single user interface instead of navigating between disparate, siloed programs. With increased access to data, security teams are positioned to make smarter decisions that lead to faster intervention and resolution. 

Scott ThomasScott Thomas is the National Director for Signature Brands at Genetec, a global technology company that has been transforming the physical security industry for more than 25 years. Genetec solutions are designed to improve security, intelligence and operations for enterprises, governments and our communities.