July 26, 2023 · Investment, Savings, Security

Do You Know Basic ATM Safety?

Where there’s money, there’s the potential for crime, whether physical or electronic

With the widespread use of paper checks, credit and debit cards, electronic banking, and digital payment systems, it seems that fewer people use cash money, especially when it can be permanently lost and doesn’t offer any additional rewards beyond its purchasing ability. Some businesses are even shifting to a cash-free payment policy and will only accept a card payment for their goods or services.

But cash is still absolutely necessary for certain transactions, such as for specialized merchants and tipping for services, and its use is unlikely to disappear anytime soon. It’s also easier to get cash than ever before, since automated teller machines (ATMs) can provide money almost any time of the day or night, even in some relatively remote locations at late hours.

Using an ATM is usually a simple and safe activity—but not always. Money usually attracts thieves, robbers, hackers, fraudsters, and imposters; these sorts of criminals can be a legitimate threat during certain transactions, whether online or in the bricks-and-mortar world. Even sturdy ATMs and their users are not safe from being victimized by opportunistic crooks that are ready to quickly take your money when they encounter the right circumstances.

However, with information, consideration and caution, it’s possible to improve the safety of ATM use. Here are basic tips for ATM usage that could help prevent losing money and financial accounts, or potentially save someone from personal, physical harm.

The best ATM isn’t always the easiest ATM; consider location, visibility, lighting and timing

Location is important when choosing an ATM, especially at night. So…

  • Preferably, use one of your financial institution’s ATMs at a location you know and trust.
  • If you need to use an unknown ATM, try to pick a machine in a highly visible public location near a main street or other high traffic area, not on an obscured side street.
  • Use an ATM in a well-lit area without plants, buildings or objects that a crook can hide behind.
  • Avoid using an ATM at night, if possible. If you must use the machine during nighttime there should be street lights nearby, and there should be bright lighting around the machine.
  • Survey the ATM’s area for people lurking nearby or cars that drive by and then turn around and come back down the street you’re on. Consider using an ATM at another location if the area does not seem safe.

Be careful how you approach, access, and leave the ATM—be prepared and be quick

When you’ve found the ATM you want, there are more actions you can take that could keep you safer when using the machine. Think about…

  • Make ATM transactions with someone with you, since crooks are more likely to target solo users.
  • Move quickly when approaching or leaving a machine; don’t dawdle.
  • Have your ATM card in your hand and ready to insert as you approach the machine for faster use. Keep your cellphone handy if you need to call for help.
  • For a drive-up ATM, have all your car doors locked, all the windows but your window rolled up, and the engine running. Again, keep your cellphone handy if you need to call for help.
  • Crooks can come in any size, shape or age. Just because someone looks harmless doesn’t mean you are safe.
  • If someone is uncomfortably close when you are at the ATM, cancel your transaction, and find another machine somewhere else. The person standing near you may be trying to spy on you entering your PIN.
  • Use you body to block someone from seeing you enter your PIN, and use one hand to cover the hand putting in your PIN.
  • Don’t count your money after a cash withdrawal, since a large amount can convince a criminal that you’re worth a crime, and counting gives a crook more time to reach and steal from or rob you.
  • Take your receipt with you and dispose of it safely later—don’t throw it in a trash receptacle nearby. Even a receipt may have some information a fraudster could use for identity theft.
  • If you’ve taken out cash and you’ll be walking some distance, survey the area around you again. If you’re walking and believe you’re being followed, try to find what could be a safer location—such as a store, gas station, or restaurant—with people around. Get close to the other people and then call the police.
  • Be careful of skimmer machines on the ATM. What are they? Well…

Robbers and thieves are not the only ATM risk to consider. Look out for criminal skimming machines that leech onto ATMs to steal your account access details and your money

Even with no one present, ATM transactions can be compromised and money can be stolen from you. Sophisticated crooks use devices known as skimmers that can be customized to closely match the design and appearance of specific models of ATMs. Skimmers often attach to the card-reading terminals of ATMs to intercept your account access information by directly reading your inserted card’s data and then either storing these sensitive details or transmitting them (by cable or wirelessly) to another device for storage. With these account details, the fraudster can clone your ATM card, access your account and drain it of funds. The crooks using the skimmer may also have an unobtrusive camera pointed at the keyboard to record your typing, so always cover your hand when entering information into a cash machine.

There can be physical clues to when a skimmer has been placed on an ATM. Scrutinize ATMs carefully before using them, and don’t access them if you see any of these warning signs that they could have been illegally tampered with:

  • Loose or flimsy plastic or metal casing
  • Misaligned pieces and joints that don’t match up
  • Cracked, broken or damaged housing, including breaks or holes
  • Excessive scratches, scrapes, or dents on the ATM body or around panels
  • Sticky residue or tape around the edges of panels
  • Missing screws, bolts or other pieces that appear to have been removed
  • Hard-to-press buttons and a shifty keypad
  • An oversized card insertion slot
  • Colored plastic around the card slot that may not match the other colors of the ATM or the company that owns it
  • Panels or other components that look newer than the rest of the ATM or don’t seem to complement its design
  • Unusual on-screen instructions that read very differently from regular instructions, including requests to confirm or type in more information than is typical for most ATMs

What about enhancing safety for your computer, cellphone or home internet network?

More information on protecting yourself and your devices—and some financial advice—is available from free, monthly Delta Community Financial Education Center webinars on many different money-related topics. Please visit the Financial Education Center's Events & Seminars page to register for its no-cost, on-demand webinars.

Delta Community’s blog and security posts have a lot of advice on handling online personal security: