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'Emergency PINs' won't summon help at ATMs

It's an urban myth that punching number in reverse calls police

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In coming weeks, a little-known element of the new credit card reform law seems certain to re-ignite a controversy that banks keep trying to avoid, fuel an enduring urban (and suburban) legend and draw attention to a matter of life and death for the millions of Americans who use automated teller machines. 'Emergency PINs' to summon help at ATMs?

The issue at hand: the feasibility of a security system that would allow consumers to silently signal police they are being robbed or kidnapped during an ATM transaction.

Under the Credit CARD Act of 2009, the Federal Trade Commission is required to submit a report to Congress that examines the need for and potential use of an ATM warning system. The report is due by Feb. 22, though agency officials say it could be released earlier.(See story update "FTC ATM emergency PIN study takes a year, says little")

Support from ATM entrepreneurs
Supporters of such a "send help right away" system say their day might finally be arriving.

"Sunshine kills a lot of germs, and the banks have been keeping the sunlight off this problem for a long time," said Joe Zingher, an Illinois attorney and inventor who has patented SafetyPIN,  a reverse personal identification number system. It is one of several proposals that would silently alert police during ATM transactions conducted under duress.

Ron Russikoff, creator of an alert system called ATMOnGuard, agreed.

"The more attention this issue receives," he said, "the better the public will be served."

He noted that most ATM-related crimes do not begin at the machine. Rather, they start as an abduction, with the victim later forcibly accompanied to an ATM and compelled to make a withdrawal.

"Therefore, there is the need for an additional level of protection for the cardholder at the ATM, and that is a discreet alert system that is both easy to use for the cardholder when under duress and cost effective for the banks," he said.

Not so fast, say bankers
Opponents of such a system say it simply is not necessary and, in fact, could place crime victims in greater peril.

"We just feel that banks have looked into these proposals several times over the years and have found that they're just not the best solutions for providing safety," said Margot Mohsberg, a spokeswoman for the American Bankers Association, which represents nearly all of the nation's banks.

Wait a second, you might say. Doesn't the reverse PIN system already exist at most ATMs? Just punch in your PIN number in reverse (1234 becomes 4321) and help will be on the way?

We just feel that banks have looked into these proposals several times over the years and we have found that they're just not the best solutions for providing safety.

-- Margot Mohsberg    
American Bankers Association    

The system is a myth, despite persistent Internet claims to the contrary.

To be super-clear: The system is not in place at any of the estimated 425,000 ATM in the United States. Do not try it. It will not work for you. Period.

A myth so good it deserves study
That might change, depending on the conclusions of the FTC study, which was mandated by an amendment attached to the omnibus CARD act. That amendment requires the FTC, in consultation with the Justice Department and the Secret Service, to study the feasibility and cost effectiveness of emergency PIN numbers, panic buttons or any other safety  mechanism that might be added to ATMs.

The study, which is being conducted by the FTC's Bureau of Economics, also is required to provide an estimate of the number and severity of the ATM crimes that would be prevented by deploying that technology.

To date, no one really knows how many crimes are committed at ATMs, because the statistics usually are blended into the larger categories of bank robberies, kidnappings or other felonies.

That said, estimates of ATM-related crimes generally range between 3,000 and 5,500 per year. Some of them end tragically -- the victims murdered after they withdraw cash and hand it over to the assailants.

Lack of data stalls interest
The absence of firm numbers has been a key stumbling block for Russikoff, Zingher and other supporters of ATM emergency notification systems.

"With the issue of demand, there is the perception that ATM cardholder crime is not severe enough to warrant an overhaul of the current ATM system and that current efforts to protect the cardholder are effective enough," Russikoff said. "It is our hope that this study will not also shed light on the severity of this issue, but further reinforce our findings that a significant majority of the crimes do not even originate at the ATM, thereby rendering current ATM safety measures ineffective."

Said Zingher: "If you can't measure it, it's not a fact. For the banks, that's really the key, as far as I can tell."

A former military policeman, Zingher patented the reverse PIN system in 1998 and has been trying to persuade banks to deploy it ever since. "I thought I had the best of all possible worlds," he said. "Make loads of money for saving people's lives. Where's the downside of that?"

It took awhile, but Zingher found out.

To date, how much money has he made on the system? "Not a dime," said Zingher, who says he has spent $100,000 on the project and is now broke and living with his brother. "Not one dime."

The American Bankers Association says that 425,010 ATMs were in use in the United States in 2008, the last year for which statistics are available. Those machines processed 11.8 billion transactions that year and about half of those transactions involved cash withdrawals, according to industry estimates.

How 'reverse PIN' would work
In the reverse PIN system, an ATM user who is under duress punches in his or her PIN, but in reverse. (Other emergency codes would be available to ATM users who, inadvisably, chose palindromic PINs such as 4444 or 4224.)

To all appearances, the machine responds normally. It churns out cash and a receipt. But silently, behind the scenes, the bank's computers recognize the emergency code and flash an alert to local police.

This, advocates say, gives authorities a head start in locating the victim and possibly saving him or her from greater harm.

In addition, the system would appear to offer the potential of a major deterrent effect. The sheer knowledge that victims might be sending a silent call for help could discourage criminals from even trying to rob an ATM user.

But the reverse PIN system, which Zingher said could be installed in every ATM in the country for about $10 million, is not the only one that exists, at least theoretically.

  • Russikoff's ATMOnGuard system would have ATM users routinely punch in two codes. One would be their usual PIN; the other would be a second password that could, if the user were under duress, be altered to send a silent call for help.
  • A third system actually has been tried at several hundred ATMs. Called the ATM911 emergency communications system, it involves a physical button that can be pressed to initiate a two-way call to the local 911 emergency operations center. Company officials emphasize, however, that the system is designed for use only after a robbery and by victims who are left at the scene by the assailant.

Such victims might not agree with this, but they are relatively lucky. Authorities often refer to ATM robberies as "express kidnappings." The reason: In most ATM-related crimes, the abduction and payoff/ransom come in quick succession.

Traffic cases
Though the crimes are relatively rare -- even 5,500 per year work out to one for every 2.14 million ATM transactions -- they can be daunting to solve and haunting for all concerned.

Police in Boca Raton, Fla., for instance, are still struggling to make an arrest in the deaths of Nancy Bochicchio, 47, and her daughter, Joey, only 7. Both were shot in the head in the back seat of their car after the single mother was abducted at a posh shopping mall and forced to withdraw $500 from a nearby ATM.

That happened on Dec. 13, 2007. Despite a $350,000 reward, police have worked through 1,900 leads and have come up empty. Now, they say they are reduced to trying to trace a pair of goggles found inside Bochicchio's car.

Cases like these appall advocates of ATM emergency systems, who say that issuing an alert from the ATM machine might be the only chance a victim has to call for help.

Practical objections
Bank representatives, however, say that such cases are the extreme and that the installation of safety systems could put ATM users in more danger. They say:

  • Many people have enough trouble remembering their usual PIN. Stressed by a robbery in progress, they easily could stumble while trying to input a reverse PIN and anger the assailant.
  • Authorities generally advise victims not to mount any resistance during a robbery because doing so could enhance the risk of physical harm.
  • ATM withdrawals generally are limited to several hundred dollars per 24-hour period -- not enough money to risk your life over.

Bank industry officials say consumers are far better off taking sensible precautions to avoid incidents before they occur. (Marketers of the ATM911 system have posted security tips for users of walk-up ATMs and drive-up ATMs.)

"We think these systems might present the person with a false sense of security," said Mohsberg, the spokeswoman for the American Bankers Association. "And what if the person tries to put in a reverse number and chokes and alerts the robber, which puts them in greater danger?"

Nonsense, said Zingher.

"That's like having the captain of the Titanic saying, 'We can't use those lifeboats because someone might slip,'" he said.

See related: ATM provider releases list of safety tips, ATMs aren't just for cash withdrawals anymore, ATMs as voting machines: An idea whose time hasn't come

Published: February 5, 2010



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