Why steal from an ATM when you can steal the ATM? SD County sees ATM theft spree

Chito’s Taco Shop at Del Lago Boulevard.

Chito’s Taco Shop at Del Lago Boulevard and Interstate 15 near Westfield North County in the early morning hours of Dec. 17 was the latest in a new type of brazen crime wave striking San Diego County since June.

The same thing happened Nov. 6 at a Tierrasanta Chase Bank branch. And Oct. 6 at an Otay Mesa CVS Pharmacy and nearby check cashing store.

Not to mention Sept. 21 at a Carmel Valley Rite Aid, Aug. 31 at a Poway Rite Aid, June 16 at a Santee Walgreens, June 11 at a Rancho Penasquitos CVS Pharmacy and June 3 at the same store.

Why stop there? Local thieves have figured it’s better to haul away the entire ATM machine than mess with taking the money from the ATM machine itself or robbing a customer.

In the case of Escondido’s Chito’s Taco Shop, a mom-and-pop shop at the small strip mall at 3440 Del Lago Blvd., a witness to the attempted ATM theft just before 3 a.m. blew the whistle on the perpetrators. Escondido Police Sgt. Eric Distel said the thieves left empty-handed despite attempting to tow the ATM out of the shop curtesy of a light-colored Chevrolet pickup truck.

The Escondido ATM gang that couldn’t tow straight was seen last on Del Lago Boulevard headed north. While the perpetrators haven’t been apprehended, Chito’s felt the full brunt of the aborted ATM theft attempt. The cash machine was pulled loosed from the counter, but there it remained along with a broken window and door and glass strewn across the floor,

Santee Walgreen's following ATM theft attempt.

Santee Walgreen’s following ATM theft attempt.

Other ATM theft attempts have yielded mixed results. The November Tierrasanta Chase ATM was found later, abandoned on a flatbed truck resulting in the arrest of one man. The two Otay Mesa ATM’s went unrecovered as well as the two Rite Aid machines taken in late summer.

The June 16 Santee Walgreens ATM caper didn’t work out for the thieves who tethered a chain to the truck to try and drag out the ATM. They left without the ATM although the chain remained tied around the offending machine.

The June 11 Poway CVS ATM smash-and-grab attempt came up empty. The June 3 Rancho Penasquitos CVS attempt also went awry. Deputies later found the suspects’ truck abandoned on a freeway ramp.

Actually, this smash-and-ATM-grab crime wave has been gaining momentum since the 2007-08 recession, not only locally but across North America from Vancouver to Miami.

Thieves try twice a week on average to steal machines around Dallas, according to the Dallas Morning News. They have hit convenience stores, hotels, gas stations, pharmacies and restaurants in all sections of the city. The New York Post earlier this year reported on a gang of ATM bandits who stole 73 machines over the 12 months, netting hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Opportunity plus convenience equals…

It’s not a bad crime if one can get away with it or even if one can’t.

Targets are fairly easy to find since places like convenience stores and small restaurants and stores host machines. Criminal penalties are much less severe for ATM theft than for armed robbery or for breaking into a bank in most states.

What’s more, it’s an appealing crime for anti-social-type thieves. “One of the reasons people like it is because you can do it late at night,” J.R. Roberts, a security analyst with Kansas-based Securities Strategies said. ”You don’t have to confront anyone.”

It’s not a simple crime to pull off as evidenced by the failure rate this year in San Diego County. Merely lifting machines can require as many as four men.

ATM heists are fairly messy and labor intensive. Thieves require a pickup truck, chains and a little pulling power to pop off free-standing ATM machines. Typically, attempts take place late at night at convenience stores. Thieves back a (perhaps) stolen pick-up truck to the store’s front door, then smash the store’s windows. Would-be thieves then loop a chain attached to the truck around the target ATM.

The truck yanks the machine, along with the front doors and anything else in the way, into the parking lot. The robbers lift the machine onto their flatbed and drive off, fast. Even after the getaway, thieves still have to break into the ATM’s safe, which usually requires a blowtorch. Most ATM heists end with the robbers setting fire to the stolen vehicle as well as the machine to cover their tracks

 Crime that pays although security has new ways

However, the crime can pay off big-time. An average-sized ATM may hold as much as $200,000 although most contain less than $10,000.

The FBI doesn’t track ATM theft statistics because many occur at convenience stores or other locations not operated by a bank. Most police departments don’t track the crime specifically, and it’s categorized as theft in most crime statistics. So, there’s no accurate estimate of how widespread the practice has become.

ATM ripe for the picking

ATM ripe for the picking

ATM manufacturers have improved theft-prevention efforts to meet the challenge. One security challenge remaining, though, revolves around where machines are located. ATM’s attached to building are a bear to remove. Thieves look for free-standing machines in small stores, especially ones in the front of the store.

Overall machine size and steel width can vary from a couple hundred pounds for more secure locations to more than 2,000 pounds for machines in unmonitored locations. Some machines are also connected to alarm systems, which quickly alert police. Some ATM’s have their own alarm systems.

If a pack of thieves does make away with a machine, there’s a final obstacle: opening it up. That will take hours of hammering away with no guarantee of a big score.

It’s a crime on the rise, though, tagged the latest “hip crime” by Time Magazine a few years ago. Don’t be surprised when the next one occurs at an ATM near you.

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