I have a story to tell. Back in 2005 I was consulting in Westchester County in New York state for many months. One evening I decided to go to one of the large malls in the area for dinner. I decided to wait until I got to the mall to get money to pay for dinner.

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I went to an ATM right outside Washington Mutual Bank, which is no longer around. The ATMs were directly across from the security office of the mall, which would seem like one of the safest places around. I put my card in and hit my pin number; nothing happened. I thought that was strange so I pulled my card out, put it back in and tried again; no luck. I then decided I’d just pay for dinner using my card as a credit card and went on my way.

The next afternoon I left where I was consulting and stopped to get gas. I put my card in and it was rejected. I tried again; same thing. I switched to another card, got my gas, and went back to the hotel I was staying at. Once there I called the number on the back of my card to find out what was wrong, as I knew there was enough money in the account to not have to worry about anything.

The lady on the phone told me that overnight there were two large transactions taking money out of my account in a city in England. She said that they flagged as errors because the dates of the transactions were listed as being before I had used my card, and because I had shown myself to be in the United States by using the card at another place.

Just like that I was out close to $2,000; how scary does that sound? I reported it to both the security office and the bank branch. Neither seemed to believe it could be happening, and the bank people said I was the first person who’d called about the problem. Days later there was a big story in the New York Times about many people having money taken from their accounts by using ATMs belonging to Washington Mutual in New York City; I was fairly close to NYC, so I figured that was connected and it almost had to be an inside job. At least I did get my money back in a week; whew!

There are few things one can do to really protect themselves from ATMs that might take your money. At least there are these few, however. Here’s what I’d recommend:

  1. Go inside to get your money. Anyone that’s tampered with an ATM on the inside will be on camera, and if your money is still taken, everyone will know it had to be an employee.
  2. Never try your card more than once at any ATM. If you don’t get your money the first time go inside and ask someone to check things out if you’re doing your transaction during the day.
  3. Be wary if the person in front of you is having difficulties. Sometimes people think that something must be wrong with the other person’s card, but that’s not always the case.
  4. Be alert and look at the ATM before using it. Sometimes there’s a plastic sheath that might not look right. Sometimes you get a feeling that something is amiss but you can’t quite put your finger on it. If you don’t feel comfortable, trust your instincts and don’t use it.
  5. Never let anyone you don’t know help you with your card. They could be in on the scam, in which case you’ll have just opened your full bank account to strangers.


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