ATM Safety: How to Get Cash and Minimize Risk

Young Woman using Drive-Through ATM
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We live in a digital world, but sometimes you still need cash, and the easiest way to get money is often from an ATM. They’re located almost everywhere – in bank branches, convenience stores, and street corners. However, it’s almost too easy to get cash, and we often forget that there are risks that come with using an ATM.

The risks are often small, and most of us can avoid trouble with basic common sense, but it’s helpful to have a checklist in mind for staying safe.

The main things to be aware of are:

  • Your personal safety – somebody trying to steal cash, which might also involve physical injury
  • Identity theft – somebody getting information that can be used to get money later. Although you might not be liable for the losses, it’s possible to lose money, and cleaning up after identity theft is time-consuming.

Operating an ATM is easy: just swipe or insert your card, enter your PIN, and request cash. A few extra steps can help you minimize risk.

Location, Location, Location

Most problems can be avoided by using an ATM in a good location. ATMs located inside of bank branches are generally the safest: the bank is locked at night, and the machine is under 24-hour video surveillance. As a result, thieves are less likely to tamper with or loiter around those ATMs – they don’t want to appear in security footage, and there’s less opportunity to physically access the machine.

On the other hand, ATMs located on the street are more suspect.

Use safe, well-lit locations: any place that is well-lit and has sufficient traffic is a decent place to use the ATM. Those conditions make it harder to commit crimes of opportunity, and help will always be nearby if you need it. Even glass “booths” where you need to swipe an ATM card to enter are better than using an ATM exposed to the street – you can put everything away securely in your purse or wallet before walking out on the street, and it’s harder for anybody to get inside while you’re withdrawing cash.

Use ATMs that you’re familiar with: if possible, plan ahead and withdraw cash from an ATM in a location you’re familiar with. You’re more likely to notice if something is wrong, and you’ll also minimize the number of ATMs that you stick your card in (reducing the chances that you’re caught in a card skimming scam).

Tips for Using an ATM Securely

Who else is around? As you approach an ATM, pay attention to your surroundings. Who else is in the area, and what are they up to? Thieves may be lingering nearby to watch you enter your PIN, or they might want to see how much cash you get (and whether or not it’s worth trying to rob you). Be wary of anybody who offers to help you use a “finicky” or malfunctioning ATM – it’s more likely that they’re helping themselves to your money. If you feel uncomfortable about anybody in the area, use a different ATM.

Look before you use: take a look at the ATM before you insert your card. Look for equipment or damage that might suggest that the ATM has been tampered with. Thieves can install card-readers, hidden cameras, and  keypad readers (for stealing your PIN) on ATMs – and sometimes they’re difficult to see. You can even give the equipment a little “jiggle” or bump to see if it moves easily, but don’t damage the equipment.

Again, if you’re suspicious, find a different ATM.

Have your card ready: ATM withdrawals are best done as in-and-out transactions. Anybody behind you in line will appreciate efficiency. More importantly, you don’t want to hang around in front of an ATM fumbling for a card. Plan ahead so that you at least know where everything is. When you dig through your wallet or purse, you’re less aware of your surroundings, which can create opportunities for thieves.

Drive defensively: if you’re withdrawing money at a drive-through, pull your car up as close as possible to the machine. This allows you to conduct business through your window (without opening your door and getting out of the vehicle, which makes you more vulnerable to thieves and carjacking). Lock your doors, and close any windows that don’t need to be open until you’re back in motion.

Put the cash away: after you cash, get the money out of sight as quickly as possible. Temptation grows when thieves can see exactly what is available to them.

Use the buddy system: if you’re concerned about getting cash alone, bring somebody with you. They can serve as an extra set of eyes, and thieves will be less interested in taking on multiple people.

If the ATM doesn’t deliver: in rare cases, an ATM will malfunction, keeping your card or simply failing to give you your money. If that happens, try to cancel out the transaction by hitting the “Cancel” key numerous times and looking for clues on the screen. Document what happened, and contact your bank immediately to get the situation resolved.