Stealing Entire ATMs Is a Terrible Idea, but Stores Are Asking for It

If the decrepit, fictionalized methheads on Breaking Bad have taught us anything, it's that stealing an entire ATM is a fruitless venture that will result in your skull getting crushed. 

In the wee hours of Monday morning, the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office arrived at a Loxahatchee Walgreens to find a busted-up ATM wedged in the doorway. Apparently, a trio of not-so-bright yet ambitious thieves figured they would just boost the entire machine and figure out how to free the cash later. 

This is the second attempted ATM heist in the past month. One has to wonder what inspires such brazen acts of thievery.  

"I don't know if you've ever seen Breaking Bad, but that's exactly the brain power of the people going after these machines in real life," says security consultant J.R. Roberts of Security Strategies. "Cletus and Gumper do a little meth, steal a pickup truck, and then decide to steal an ATM. But breaking open an ATM isn't terribly easy. They try to go at it for hours with a sledgehammer."

The greenbacks of an ATM are sealed in a vault, which is often protected by thick metal plating. While accessing the cash is rather difficult, the strategy of removing the entire machine from a story does have its upsides, Roberts explains. 

First, an average ATM at a convenience store probably has about $10,000 in its belly. If the thieves were to walk in the store a few hours earlier, waving guns at a clerk and plundering the register, the most they would likely net is $800 or so. 

Second, you don't need to be waving guns around to steal an ATM -- you just need some chains and a truck with enough torque to yank the machine from the wall. 

"It's a lower-risk, higher-yield score than just robbing a store," Roberts says. "Increasingly in your state, [robbers] encounter the very real possibility that someone will shoot them."

Roberts says there has been a spike in this type of robbery over the past two years, from California to Texas to Florida. One factor that's contributing to the uptick is that stores are making it remarkably easy for thieves by placing ATMs so close to doors while failing to reinforce windows or install adequate surveillance equipment. 

"What's frustrating is that stores tends put the ATM near the door, where everyone can see it," he says. "You have to look at crime prevention through environmental design. Put this thing far back in the store. Put bollards around it or some type of simple barrier so it's not as easy for someone to wrap a chain around it and pull it out with a truck."

Even if the heist is successful and the vault is breached, some ATMs may contain devices that stain the cash with ink or make the money unusable in some way. There's also the chance that the ATM could be equipped with a GPS device, though such technology is expensive and hasn't been widely adopted among ATM makers. 

Palm Beach deputies are still searching for the suspected trio that botched Monday's robbery. The truck used in the attempt was recovered, but an early-morning manhunt failed. 

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Chris Sweeney