PHOENIX – Leave the gun. Bank robbers have found an easier way to make off with other people's money: Around the country, thieves have hot-wired forklifts at construction sites, chugged up to banks and scooped up their ATMs, with all the cash inside.
ATM manufacturers have been working on ways to stop the heists, and sometimes the money involved is so small it hardly seems worth the risk. But that hasn't discouraged thieves this summer in such states as Arizona, California and Georgia.
They have pulled off or attempted such thefts at least 21 times this year in the Phoenix area alone.
"It's called the smash-and-dash," said Rob Evans, director of industry marketing for Dayton, Ohio-based NCR Corp., the world's largest maker of automated teller machines. Evans is the company expert on ATM thefts.
Since the 1990s, thieves have used forklifts to steal ATMs in Indonesia, New Zealand, Scotland, Ireland and Estonia, as well as the U.S. Four years ago, criminals plowed through the front doors of a movie theater in Lethbridge, Canada, with a forklift, drove into the lobby, hoisted the bulky machine and carried it to a waiting pickup truck.
The payoff for those who succeed in breaking into the machines varies widely, from a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands of dollars.
"The vast majority of those attacks are unsuccessful," Evans said. "A lot of times you just get a lot of damage."
Some attempts end in almost comic failure. Often, ATM thieves are spotted by security guards and surveillance cameras as soon as they come rumbling up, and they are eventually caught. (Some at least are smart enough to wear ski masks.) Others flee after failing to pry the ATM loose. Some get away with the machines, only to find the concrete-and-steel vault tough to crack.
In the Phoenix area -- a booming region with plenty of construction projects and lots of drive-through banks with open-air ATMs bolted to the ground, instead of embedded in a brick wall -- police will not say how much has been stolen.
One of the most recent cases took place Monday at a bank in Mesa. Sheriff's deputies found the ATM later that night burned in the desert. The cash was gone.
Law enforcement agencies in the metropolitan area have formed a task force with banking industry officials to investigate the thefts. So far, authorities have made at least two arrests in one case and are looking into whether the crimes are connected.
"It could be some organized syndicate that's just decided to hit," said Sgt. Mike Angstead, who supervises the property crimes unit with Gilbert police.
Banks won't talk about how much money their machines typically contain.
"Those with the highest concentrations of cash are in casinos and other venues with high security," Evans said. "The little tabletop machine in your quickie mart, that literally has a couple hundred bucks in it."
The smaller machines with the least security tend to be the ones that get stolen, Evans said. "It's hardly worth the trouble."
To protect their money, many banks use ATMs equipped with global-positioning technology that tells authorities where the machines are. Some have an alarm that goes off if someone tampers with the machine. Even if the thieves get away with the machines, they have to pound away pretty hard to get the safe open.
Over the summer in Sacramento, Calif., thieves took off with an ATM in a rented truck. Within hours, a GPS device inside the machine gave away its location. When police arrived, the smashed ATM was sitting on a back porch, covered in a blue tarp.
"They were just using a sledgehammer trying to open up the machine," Placer County, Calif., sheriff's Sgt. Brian Whigam said. "Once they got to the core, they discovered the GPS tracking device, and they knew the jig was up."
Four people were arrested.