Forget guns; ATM bandits use forklifts

Published October 5, 2006

PHOENIX - Leave the gun. Bank robbers have found an easier way to make off with other people's money: Around the country, thieves have hot-wired forklifts at construction sites, chugged up to banks and scooped up their ATMs, with all the cash inside.

ATM manufacturers have been working on ways to stop the heists, and sometimes the money involved is so small it hardly seems worth the risk. But that hasn't discouraged thieves this summer in such states as Arizona, California and Georgia.

They have pulled off or attempted such thefts at least 21 times this year in the Phoenix area alone.

"It's called the smash-and-dash," said Rob Evans, director of industry marketing for Dayton, Ohio-based NCR Corp., the world's largest maker of automated teller machines.

Since the 1990s, thieves have used forklifts to steal ATMs in Indonesia, New Zealand, Scotland, Ireland and Estonia, as well as the U.S. Four years ago, criminals plowed through the front doors of a movie theater in Lethbridge, Canada, with a forklift, drove into the lobby, hoisted the bulky machine and carried it to a waiting pickup.

The payoff for those who succeed in breaking into the machines varies widely, from a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands.

"The vast majority of those attacks are unsuccessful," Evans said. "A lot of times you just get a lot of damage."

Some attempts end in almost comic failure. Often, ATM thieves are seen by security guards and surveillance cameras and are caught. Some get away with the machines, only to find the concrete-and-steel vault tough to crack.

To protect their money, many banks use ATMs equipped with global-positioning technology that tells where the machines are.

Over the summer in Sacramento, Calif., thieves took off with an ATM in a rented truck. Within hours, a GPS device inside the machine gave away its location. When police arrived, the ATM was sitting on a back porch, covered in a blue tarp.

"They were just using a sledgehammer trying to open up the machine," Placer County, Calif., sheriff's Sgt. Brian Whigam said.