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Crime Rises to Technology: Robbers Target ATM Machines

May 22, 1991

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) _ Free-standing automatic teller machines are convenient for customers making withdrawals, but thieves also can get at the money easily.

A break-in at a Hudson supermarket’s ATM in November appeared an isolated incident - until robbers began walking off with the machines.

Within the past month, four thefts and four attempted thefts have occurred in southern New Hampshire and northeastern Massachusetts. Thieves Tuesday used a front-end loader to pull an ATM from its concrete enclosure outside a bank in Buffalo, Pa, near Pittsburgh.

″I certainly don’t want to put out a motivating factor so more people will get off on this, but probably it’s less risk for burglars than walking into a bank and holding it up,″ Hudson police Sgt. William Pease said.

Fines and prison sentences are lighter for bank property theft than for robbing a bank, with or without a weapon, according to FBI spokesman William McMullin in Boston, and the human factor is eliminated.

Cameras film hold-ups, security guards then chase the robber. It has to be done in seconds, someone could get hurt. In comparison, an ATM theft is leisurely, impersonal and, frequently, more profitable.

But it’s not for everyone.

″No ordinary person can steal an ATM, believe me,″ said Spencer Nilson, publisher of the Nilson Report, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based newsletter on the credit card and ATM businesses. ″It takes very sophisticated knowledge and equipment to do it. I don’t think many amateurs are doing it.″

Police agree the thieves in New Hampshire and Massachusetts likely were professionals, with some expertise in alarm systems and intricate knowledge of the machines, Pease said.

The stolen machines are among 11,000 nationwide that aren’t built into a wall and found in supermarkets, malls and other public areas. Filled weekly for withdrawals, they hold an average of $10,000 to $50,000.

The thieves cut phone lines, which disconnects the alarm system and allows them almost unlimited time inside, then undo the bolts pinning the machine down. It would take at least two people to move the machines, which weigh anywhere from 500 pounds to 900 pounds, Salem Police Lt. John Boudreau said.

Robbers then can take their time removing the money before dumping the machine. Two money machines stolen in New Hampshire were recovered this month along the Merrimack River in Lawrence, Mass.

In April, a 900-pound machine was removed with a forklift belonging to a Market Basket supermarket in Lowell, Mass. A week later, the same method was used to remove the ATM, holding more than $13,000, at a Stratham store.

The FBI was drawn in because the machines held federally insured money, said McMullin, who could not provide details on the investigation.

Only one arrest has been made in the thefts. Joel Donovan, 18, of Lowell, Mass., was arrested May 7 as he fled a Salem department store where police had responded to an alarm.

Authorities say ATM thefts are not confined to New England - Chicago, Minneapolis and Pittsburgh were hit this year - but thieves are most active in the region.

″It’s hard to say. If it isn’t the same people, it’s what we call a copycat perpetrator,″ Boudreau, the Salem police lieutenant, said. ″It appears all the break-ins in southern New Hampshire are somewhat related.″

Nilson said more banks should take advantage of security devices offered for between $500 and $2,500 by a national manufacturer of ATMs, Diebold Inc. of Canton, Ohio.

″That’s cheap, that’s nothing, it’s peanuts,″ Nilson said, citing the $15,000 to $40,000 cost of buying and installing a money machine.

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