By Mc Nelly Torres
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
Marcia Brooks, a single mother of two teens, was heading to her Walgreens job one Monday evening when she stopped at her neighborhood bank in Pompano Beach to make a deposit on the ATM.
It was around 10 p.m. when Brooks parked her Ford Focus on the curb about 10 feet away from the Wells Fargo ATM, instead of using the dimly-lit parking lot.
As she completed the $160 cash deposit, Brooks heard a vehicle rushing towards her. The red Chevrolet stopped abruptly, blocking her car. A man wearing a stocking to conceal his face and armed with a handgun jumped from the passenger’s seat and demanded money while pointing the gun to her face.
“I knew there was no place for me to go,” said Brooks. “It was terrifying.”
This report was produced in partnership with NBC6 South Florida.
The robber pressed the gun against her neck and ordered Brooks to make a withdrawal. She quickly made a transaction to withdraw the money she had deposited minutes before.
The 45-year-old prayed for someone to rescue her even though she knew that was unlikely: the building’s back blocked the view from busy Federal Highway, making it difficult for someone to see the robbery in progress.
Automatic teller machines offer consumers around the clock access to bank accounts, but as Brooks found out on July 29, 2012, ATMs are also a magnet for violent crime.
Unlike cases of fraud or identity theft, ATM violent crimes are largely under-reported because nobody tracks them. Not the FBI, the police or the banking industry. What’s more, lax regulations regarding ATM safety are rarely enforced as the banking lobby resists stronger safety measures and tries to keep litigation cases confidential, an investigation by Florida Center for Investigative Reporting and NBC6 South Florida has found.
But media reports show thousands of ATM-related crimes occur in the United States each year. In extreme cases, consumers have become victims of homicide, rape, shootings, carjacking and kidnapping, all for quick cash. In Florida, at least 35 ATM armed robberies, including shootings, carjacking and murder, have been reported since 2011, news reports show.
The most recent of these occurred in Daytona Beach in June, when a former college student pointed a handgun at a woman who was about to make a deposit — as her three children watched.
FCIR analyzed emergency or service calls placed from banks with ATMs in Broward and Miami-Dade counties for the years 2008-2012. Victims, attorneys, crime and security experts were interviewed. The analysis shows that banks with the highest number of reported crimes –including fraud, theft, burglary, and bank robbery — were more likely to have armed robberies at their ATMs.
Wells Fargo said the company is always evaluating the safety and security of ATMs and facilities to ensure customers conduct their business safely. But the financial institution would not say if any security improvements had taken place at the property in Pompano Beach since Brooks was robbed last year.
“We are saddened to hear about this unfortunate incident,” said Michelle Palomino, a spokesperson. “We are not able to provide details of our security procedures, as doing so could jeopardize them.”
Chris E. McGoey, a security consultant and private investigator based in Los Angeles, Calif., says banks don’t want the public to know which ATMs are located in dangerous locations.
“Why is this ATM open at night if all these crimes have occurred?” McGoey asked. “You know that someone is going to die eventually, and if the public knew that a robbery would be more likely to occur at that location at night, would they go?”
Victims and attorneys also cite the following as clear violations of state law: ATMs with missing or damaged mirrors; ATMs with high shrubbery; and ATMS with poor lighting in parking lots.
In Florida, all financial institutions with ATMs must provide:
• Adequate lighting during hours of darkness in parking, access area and around ATMs;
• Reflective mirrors to allow customer a rear view while using the machine;
• Any landscape, vegetation or other physical obstructions in the area shall not exceed three feet high and must be well lit for any open and operating ATM.
The Florida Office of Financial Regulation (OFR) is the state regulatory agency for financial institutions in the state, charged with inspecting state banks and enforcing these minimum ATM safety requirements. But it’s difficult to know if the agency is enforcing these regulations because as of October 2013, no citations have been issued to any of the 250 Florida state banks going back to 2009.
This is even though the state agency has 118 full-time inspectors in charge of visiting all state banks every 18 months, according to Tiffany Vause, a spokesperson with OFR.
As for the thousands of national bank locations in Florida, it’s difficult to know if banks are meeting these minimum standards. Federal regulators told FCIR and NBC6 the inspections are confidential.
Nor are OFR citations public when issued at any state bank. FCIR and NBC6 requested to follow an inspector and to review inspection records, but were denied.
“Books and records of financial institutions are confidential and may only be made available for inspection and examination to limited individuals in certain explicit circumstances,” read a letter issued by the OFR. It went on, “A review of the records by a reporter accompanying an examination team would involve unlawful disclosure of confidential information that is a 3rd-degree felony.”
The Florida banking lobby, which has contributed at least $9 million to state legislators since 1996, opposes stronger safety measures. It often tries to shift the responsibility to individual consumers, attorneys tell FCIR. As victims of ATMs crimes hold banks accountable in civil court each year, the banks continuing strategy is to settle cases to avoid trials. In that way they keep information confidential and away from public disclosure, critics contend.
Jason Turchin, a Weston-based attorney who represents victims of ATM crimes in Florida, Washington D.C. and New York, says sometimes he agrees to settle cases because his clients want closure after enduring the trauma of a violent crime.
“Unfortunately, the only way banks take responsibility is by writing a check,” said Turchin, who early this year settled a case for a woman who was sexually assaulted at an ATM in Tampa.
An ATM timeline
The first automated teller machine was introduced in New York City in 1969. By 2009, there were 401,500 ATMs in the U.S., the most recent data available, according to Tremont Capital Group, an investment banking organization. No entity tracks the numbers in Florida, where ATMs are not only located at banks but also shopping centers, supermarkets and gas stations.
As robberies and other violent crimes at ATMs became more prevalent in the 1980s, New York City and Los Angeles took the lead in approving laws to improve security. At least 12 states, including Florida – have enacted similar minimum requirements since the 1990s.
Growing concerns about violent crimes at ATMs prompted several U.S. legislators to file House Bill 3662 in 2002. Dubbed the ATM Consumer Protection Act, it would have required the Federal Reserve System to adopt mandatory minimum requirements, such as lighting, surveillance cameras, maintenance of surveillance records and alarm systems, for the security of ATMs. Owners would have to develop measures to discourage robberies and assist in identifying perpetrators. But the proposed measure died in subcommittee.
Battle lines drawn
While critics continue to point to ATM crime as a public safety issue, the banking industry, they say, has ignored this problem for years because they don’t want to institute costly corrective measures.
Alex Sanchez, president of Florida Bankers Association, says financial institutions take safety seriously and are doing everything they can to follow state rules.
“Our job is to provide a safe and good experience for our customers,” Sanchez said. “Obviously they want the convenience. We take safety very seriously.”
But John E. Leighton, an attorney based in Miami and the author of Litigating Premises Security Cases, disagrees.
“They say consumers should know it is dangerous,” Leighton said. “But when a consumer goes to the ATM and they see light and mirrors, they think that it must be okay because the bank is providing that convenience.”
Leighton, who has tried violent crime and negligent security cases for 29 years, represented the family of Alfred L. Gordon Sr., an Orlando police officer. He was off duty when he was shot and killed in 2007 during a robbery at an ATM.
The Gordons filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the two men convicted for Gordon’s murder; Bank of America; and the shopping center where the bank was located.
The bank and the shopping center settled out of court for an undisclosed amount while a jury awarded the family a whopping $24.5 million that targeted any future earnings his killers might collect.
In the Gordon case, Leighton says, the ATM had poor lighting, mirrors were missing and it was located in a high-crime area.
“Florida regulations have no teeth,” he said, “and the only way to seek justice for victims is through the civil court system.”
No data to analyze
Joseph Gleason, a Lakeland attorney, had a simple question. Why he could go online and search for sex offenders in any neighborhood in Florida, but he couldn’t find the dangerous ATMs?
He had seen the headlines after ATM users were robbed at gunpoint, assaulted, sometimes killed. Gleason, who used to work in the citrus industry in the 1990s, traveled the roads in Florida and he often used ATMs.
Last year, Gleason began the arduous task of contacting law enforcement agencies in all counties in the state with the sole purpose of filing open records requests for crimes related to ATMs.
But soon, Gleason discovered that ATM-related crimes are not documented like other crimes, such as burglaries, homicides or assault.
Every year, the Federal Bureau of Investigation publishes the Uniform Crime Report which has become the official measurement of crime in the U.S. But even as it documents murder, manslaughter, forcible rape, burglary, aggravated assault, larceny, arson and motor vehicle theft, there’s no category for ATM-related crimes.
“I never thought it would be this difficult,” Gleason says. “I thought this would be a piece of information that law enforcement would want to have.”
In fact, when the Federal Trade Commission attempted to study this issue, a mandate of the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009 (CARD), the agency couldn’t collect data pertaining to ATM crimes.
Despite the dearth of data, Rob T. Guerette, an assistant professor in the School of Criminal Justice at Florida International University in Miami who has studied this issue, says anecdotal evidence suggests that there’s a growing ATM crime problem.
“Nobody is taking the leadership to systematically record the ATM phenomenon,” Guerette says. “Until we do that, we can’t launch any meaningful initiative to try and reduce it.”
Florida’s Gleason tried one avenue: He drafted proposed legislation to address this issue, and approached several state legislators. But no one has taken interest in it.
The Pompano theft
In the Brooks case, police never found the two men who robbed her in Pompano Beach last year. The robbers took her car keys and left Brooks unharmed standing in front of the ATM at 3885 Federal Highway. Her car was not taken.
Though she’s angry that someone victimized her, she’s grateful to be alive. “They could have shot me or raped me,” Brooks said.
Did she know that the Wells Fargo branch in Pompano Beach has had numerous incidents in recent years, including larceny, fraud and bank robberies in 2008, 2010 and 2012?
Brooks had no idea.
NBC6 Reporter Willard Shepard contributed to this report.