Many people believe that if you’re under distress while using an ATM, entering your PIN backward (i.e. 4-3-2-1 rather than 1-2-3-4) will send an emergency call to the police. But while the idea may seem useful, perhaps ingenious, it has never been put into practice. Sorry, all you believers out there!
We know for certain this ATM PIN reversal trick is merely a myth because Congress directed the Federal Trade Commission to analyze the use of such technology as well as potential future applications as part of the Credit CARD Act of 2009. “Most fundamental, FTC staff learned that emergency-PIN technologies have never been deployed at any ATMs, and alarm buttons have been deployed only at very few ATMs,” the FTC’s report read. “None of the information collected indicated that any similar technology is currently in use for a distressed customer to electronically alert local law enforcement.”
It is nevertheless fair to wonder how the rumor came about as well as why ATM alarm technology isn't used and what other types of technological advances we might see in the future. We’ll explore all of those issues and more below.
The notion that entering your PIN in reverse at an ATM would send out a call for help didn’t just materialize out of thin air. It actually began circulating the Web around 2006 after the technology was patented by Chicago businessman Joseph Zingher in 1998. While Zingher was successful in lobbying a number of states to propose legislation supporting the use of so-called “ATM panic buttons,” the idea never took off – especially with the banking community.
Detractors point to both the cost of implementing such features as well as concern about its potential effectiveness. Would a call to the police – whose response time averages roughly 11 minutes nationally – really do someone much good if they’re being forced to withdraw cash from their bank account?
The FTC certainly wasn’t sure about that, ultimately concluding:
“The best available qualitative information … suggests that these technologies: (1) may not deter any type of ATM crime, and in some instances may actually increase the risk of danger to ATM customers; (2) might entail banks incurring non-trivial costs for their deployment; and (3) could result in at least some false activations that might lead to the inefficient allocation of police resources.”
While you don’t have the option of simply flipping your PIN in a crisis, there are a number of steps that you can take to protect yourself when using an ATM. With that being said, it’s important to point out that these types of robberies are actually relatively rare. Studies have shown there to be roughly one ATM crime per 3.5 million transactions. So, while the following strategies will help keep you safer, there is little reason to be overly concerned about your wellbeing when withdrawing cash.
- Have a Plan: Knowing exactly what transactions you want to perform, remembering your PIN and generally acting with a purpose will minimize the time you spend at the ATM and thereby make you a more challenging target.
- Go During the Daytime: Since most robberies occur at night, banking during daytime hours will dramatically reduce your susceptibility to crime. Not only will it be harder for criminals to sneak up on you, but there will be more bystanders (i.e. potential witnesses) to discourage any mischief.
- Use an ATM in a Safe Location: Frequenting ATMs in safe, high-traffic locations is a great way to protect yourself. An ATM inside a convenience store or supermarket, for example, may be a better bet during late hours.
- Mind Your Surroundings: You should remain vigilant when withdrawing cash, keeping an eye on the people around you and considering how you would get away quickly should that be necessary.
- Use the Existing Security Features: Most ATMs have mirrors that enable you to see what people behind and to the sides of you are doing without turning your head. Others have screens that cannot be read from the side. Taking advantage of these features, surveying your blind spots and making sure no one is peeking over your shoulder, is therefore an obvious safeguard.
- Don’t Argue If Held Up: No amount of money is worth your life. If you are confronted, give the robber what he asks for and live to fight another day. There are steps you can take to make yourself financially whole, but trying to become physically whole is a whole lot tougher, with way more on the line.
- Communicate with Your Bank: If you are robbed while using the ATM, notify the police and your bank right away. Your debit card will then be suspended and you will be issued a new one. Odds are the coerced withdrawal will be treated as an unauthorized transaction and you will be given your money back.
- Apply a Withdrawal Limit: If you are seriously concerned about falling victim to an ATM robbery, one way that you can limit your potential liability is to reduce your daily withdrawal limit. This would cap the amount of funds a thief could take from you. Just make sure to consider your financial needs and spending habits in order to set your limit at the proper amount.
- Check Your Bank Statements: ATM crime can’t always be seen. It’s also popular for criminals to tamper with ATM machines in order to record users’ card information. This is called “skimming.” The best way to protect against the potential ramifications of skimming is to regularly review your bank account information to make sure no one has gained unauthorized access to your funds.
A reverse-PIN-triggered 911 call sounds both cool and useful. But, as we learned above, its practicality has been called into such significant question that it’s doubtful the technology will ever be resuscitated. It’s not the only technological ATM breakthrough in the pipeline, fortunately enough, because criminals are becoming increasingly advanced and we must constantly strive to keep up.
One of the most significant changes to the personal finance landscape that we can expect in the near future is the country’s migration to the EMV standard. This will require new bankcards, new card readers and, yes, new ATMs. These new-age machines will be able to read the computer chips embedded in EMV credit cards as well as, eventually, reset the PIN on someone’s chip-and-PIN credit card. Deploying EMV cards and ATMs will also block thieves from creating duplicate cards using data captured by ATM skimmers.
That’s not it, though. Biometric authentication features – such as fingerprint or iris scanning – have also been discussed as potential additions to ATM security, in addition to much-needed software updates.
“In the future it is likely that attacks may focus more on the software that runs the ATM, as this provides greater potential rewards for the thief, and potentially less risk,” says Wade M. Chumney, assistant professor of Business Ethics and Law at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “While future security will still focus on physical attacks, by implementing new hardened designs, they will also feature security that is less obvious to the user, as in the software utilized to run the device.”
Chumney also says that videoconferencing with a bank teller at an ATM will soon be a reality, further reducing the brick-and-mortar footprint of financial institutions. The move would also save banks a great deal of money, some of which could conceivably be passed along to consumers – as has been the case with online-only bank accounts offering terms superior to branch-based accounts, according to WalletHub’s Banking Landscape Reports.
“Some estimates place the savings of using an ATM at about 50 times cheaper than that of a branch transaction,” he said. “Another estimate states that banks could reduce costs by as much as 80% per transaction by having customers utilize an ATM as opposed to a traditional branch. Generally speaking, the younger the customer, the more likely they are to utilize the video conferencing capabilities.”
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