Research and Statistics

FTC ATM ’emergency PIN’ study takes a year, says little


Congress mandated a year ago that the FTC study whether it’s feasible to create ways for people to summon emergency at ATMs. Dunno, the long-awaited study says.

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After nearly a year of study and almost three months past their deadline, federal officials have determined that “send-help-right-away” alert systems at automatic teller machines — including the well-known but never deployed “reverse PIN” system — aren’t cost effective or even necessary.



The anecdotal evidence that the staff relied upon … does not allow for any definitive conclusions.

— Federal Trade Commission, Report on Emergency Technology for use with ATMs

Probably. Maybe. Well, actually, the feds aren’t really sure.

The result: Millions of ATM users are no closer today to being able to summon help during a robbery or abduction at one of the nation’s 400,000 cash machines than they were when the study was mandated in May 2009.

The long-awaited report by the Federal Trade Commission, released Friday, came to no definitive conclusion and failed to answer the three main questions facing the FTC:

  • How many crimes could be prevented by deploying one or more security systems?
  • How much would it cost to deploy these devices?
  • How do the three leading ATM alert technologies compare?

Data deemed insufficient
The commission said it simply could not find sufficient data to provide meaningful answers.

“The anecdotal evidence that the staff relied upon … does not allow for any definitive conclusions regarding the efficacy of the reviewed emergency-PIN  or alarm button systems to affect ATM crimes,” the study said.

At the same time, however, the authors said the best available anecdotal evidence suggested that the technologies may not deter ATM crimes, might increase the danger confronting ATM customers, might compel banks to incur substantial and “nontrivial” costs, and could result in false alarms that “might lead to the inefficient allocation of police resources.”

The outcome infuriated inventors and proponents of ATM security systems. All of them have been having great trouble convincing banks to adopt the technologies and all hoped that the FTC report would endorse their systems or at least spur interest in them.

That didn’t happen, and proponents say that leaves ATM users still at risk of robbery and, worse, abduction and murder.

I’ve never read anything so vague in my life.

— Joe Zingher
SafetyPIN inventor

“I’ve never read anything so vague in my life,” said Joe Zingher, an Illinois attorney and inventor who has patented SafetyPIN,  a reverse personal identification number system.

“Instead of focusing on the emergency PIN as a deterrent to abductions, he [the report’s author] switches to ‘ATM crime’ and includes robberies that occur after the withdrawal is made,” Zingher said. “He doesn’t contrast the situation without the system versus with the system.”

Zingher’s reverse PIN system is just that: If your pin is 1234, you can summon police assistance by unobtrusively punching in 4321.

Reverse PINs an urban legend
Many people believe that reverse PINs already work at many ATM machines, but the reality is this: The system is not in place at any ATM in the United States. None. Zero. Nada.

Reverse PIN technology “has been rumored to have been available at ATMs for some time despite never being implemented, falling into the realm of urban legend,” the FTC confirmed in its report.

Another system, called ATMOnGuard, would have ATM users routinely punch in two codes. One is the customer’s usual PIN; the other is a second single-digit code that could, if the user were under duress, be altered to send a silent call for help.

The FTC said that system also has never been deployed in the United States. Ron Russikoff, creator of the ATMOnGuard system, was not immediately available for comment.

Industry officials say that ATMs process at least 11 billion transactions a year, and about half of those transaction end up with a customer walking away holding cash withdrawals.

ATM-related robberies declining?
Some estimates place the number of ATM-related crimes at between 3,000 and 5,500 per year, but the FTC reported that the rate of ATM-related crimes seems to be declining without any assistance from the automated systems.

“Although there is no precise data on ATM crime, violent crime against ATM users is relatively rare,” the study said. “Over the decade of the 1990s, ATM crime has actually decreased from approximately one crime per 1 million ATM transactions to one crime per 3.5 million transactions.”

With that in mind, representatives of the banking industry long have opposed reverse-PIN and similar systems, saying they could elevate the danger faced by ATM customers, especially if the thief or abductor suspects that an alarm has been sent.

… [R]everse PIN technology does not improve the safety of ATM users and in fact could put them in further danger.

— Margot Mohsberg
American Bankers Association

“The findings of the FTC report confirm what we have been saying for years — the reverse PIN technology does not improve the safety of ATM users and in fact could put them in further danger,” Margot Mohsberg, a spokeswoman for the American Bankers Association, the banking trade group, said Friday.

“We are always looking for new ideas to improve the safety of our customers, but research by several banks across the country has found that the reverse PIN technology does not do this,” she said.

The FTC study, produced by the commission’s Bureau of Economics, was mandated by an amendment to the Credit CARD Act of 2009. The report was due Feb. 22, but the commission said it needed extra time to complete it.

In the end, however, the closest the study could come to resolving the issue was this less-than-definitive conclusion:

“Despite the unavailability of the data that would be necessary to conduct the study mandated by the act, the preponderance of the extant anecdotal evidence suggests that emergency-PIN technologies likely would not have a large impact on ATM crime.”

See related:Should there be emergency PINs to summon ATM help?, A guide to the Credit CARD Act of 2009

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