How to protect your ATMs from bold thievery

Across the United States, banks have experienced a significant increase in theft attempts related to automated teller machines. In a 52-week period through June 2021, a National Association of Convenience Stores article found that Travelers Insurance saw a 257 percent increase in the number of claims related to ATM smash-and-grab thefts. In Houston alone, more than 50 members of an organized crime group targeting ATMs were arrested by the FBI. 

Based on surveillance video, these thefts followed a similar pattern. Initially, a crowbar was used to pry the front door of a unit open. Then, stolen pickup trucks or construction equipment were used to pull out a safe door (or in some cases the entire ATM), exposing cash canisters inside. The entire theft process was accomplished in less than five minutes. Even when the robbery attempt was unsuccessful, the significant damages to ATMs resulted in repair or replacement costs for banks, and loss of use for patrons.

In response to this growing threat, banks are increasing their ATM protection measures by investing in new technologies and systems. These measures strengthen and unify their security operations and help prevent and deter attacks.

Older video technology doesn’t address this problem

Almost all banks already use video surveillance cameras located in and around their ATMs. Those located in other businesses or spaces may still utilize a covert, onboard camera inside the machine. These cameras typically have an onboard device for recording video from that camera. 

This design was meant to capture evidence associated with fraudulent card use, skimming and jackpotting. The technology works well for those purposes. However, the problem with brute force ATM attacks is that the evidence recorder itself is often damaged, destroyed or lost during the theft. 

There are other drawbacks to this technology as well. Retrieving the video from the ATM is a manual process. The first generation of these devices involved opening the unit, disconnecting the recorder, and replacing it on a rotational basis. Eventually, this evolved to networking the units — which allowed some remote investigation. Depending on the ISP connection, finding and downloading relevant evidence became a time-consuming challenge.

This technology also didn’t provide any alert or notification if the camera or recorder were to malfunction or fall offline. Often the only way these events became known was when evidence from that specific unit was needed. 

Proactive advanced surveillance technology

Today, bank security professionals want proactive threat detection and system health notifications with fast, reliable evidence acquisition. A new method for achieving these goals involves using advanced video management systems with centralized or cloud storage options. 

Advanced threat detection for ATMs can be achieved in several ways. The most common is via video analytics where, when set on a schedule, an alert is sent if there are vehicles or multiple individuals near a unit. These notifications, along with the corresponding video, are immediately sent to third-party monitoring companies or the bank’s own security operations center. This allows for immediate determination if a threat is imminent or if it’s simply a late-night patron. Additional options, including unit movement sensors and door contacts, can be added to the ATM and integrated with the camera feed by the VMS.

Another proactive option is the placement of speakers or external strobe lights if the ATM is on bank property. These can be manually or automatically activated if a threat is identified. Advanced video management systems can place multiple conditions before the devices are triggered. This might include the time of the event plus multiple persons and unit movement, before being triggered. The sound of a siren or voice indicating law enforcement is en route may be enough to deter potential thieves before they attempt to do damage. 

Automatic license plate recognition is another video analytics tool that can be used to record license plates as well as the characteristics of suspicious vehicles. This data can then be stored and automated with alert notifications, if a vehicle in the database is spotted at locations other than specified. ALPR can be used forensically as well to search for times a specific plate was identified, potentially casing an ATM location. This could provide better evidence of suspicious individuals than looking at a nighttime video.

For indoor ATM locations, banks are implementing advanced access control systems that ensure only customers with valid bank cards can access ATMs located in a lobby, after hours. The access control system can prohibit access for those who aren’t customers. This approach has the benefit of preventing individuals from sleeping in lobbies or undertaking other unwanted behaviors near ATMs.

Centralized or cloud evidence recording and sharing

Recording video inside the ATM presents a myriad of challenges. The latest technology innovation for enterprise-class video management systems enables banks to send video to their centralized storage or hosted in cloud data centers. Both options eliminate the possibility of a recorder being destroyed or lost inside the ATM. 

In a centralized architecture, the video can remain within the bank’s network with no ports open to the internet. The cameras simply stream the video, at the desired resolution and frame rate, back to the desired storage array. The cameras house onboard SD cards to serve as a backup in case of a temporary network outage. If that occurs, any video missed is streamed back to the central storage during periods with no activity. This architecture also supports the video analytics and other integrations.

If network and IT resources to support centralized architecture aren’t available, then enterprise cloud-hosted storage should be a consideration. Also known as video-as-a-service (VaaS), this design offers maintenance-free management, as any updates to the system are done by the VMS on the cloud server.

VaaS offers other key benefits including redundancy, as the recorded video is mirrored across multiple data centers. Another factor is storage retention. Depending on the security policy and regulatory requirements, video evidence in the cloud can be stored indefinitely. This eliminates the need to add additional hardware for video storage in a centralized architecture.

Both solutions offer an important feature — health monitoring of the system. If a camera was to go offline, immediate notice can be given to the system administrator. This ensures that there are no surprises when evidence is needed.  

The final piece to consider is how easy the evidence is to share. All video is typically recorded in a proprietary codec that is watermarked to guarantee it hasn’t been tampered with. The challenge comes when this video needs to be shared internally or outside the organization. Selecting an enterprise-class VMS will enable simple browser-based sharing, for stakeholders to securely view the evidence as needed.

Unification with other key physical security platforms

While we’re taking a close look at ATM security here, these solutions can be leveraged in branches, offices, vaults, and data centers. A unified, enterprise-class VMS platform with open architecture is key in bringing security components together — such as unifying video with access control, intrusion panels, and software, including teller transaction monitoring. 

Unification allows the operator to view, interact, and access data from a single user interface instead of navigating between disparate, siloed programs. With increased access to data, security teams are positioned to make smarter decisions that lead to faster intervention and resolution.

Scott Thomas is National Director, Signature Brands at Genetec, a security provider.