Why ATM Increasingly Means 'Attack The Mall'

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — This wasn't your typical ATM burglary.

When a Community First Credit Union employee arrived to open at 6:45 a.m. the day after Memorial Day, she carried out normal procedures. She unlocked the front door, turned the lights on and walked directly to the backoffice to disarm the alarm system.

Entering the backoffice she spotted the entire alarm panel torn out of the wall and discarded on the floor. She quickly exited the CU, alerted the Clay County Sheriff's Office and then her branch manager.

Most ATM burglaries or robberies happen at night and outside a credit union. ATMs have been ripped out of the wall, cut open with blowtorches, smashed with sledgehammers or had cash stolen with phony or stolen cards.

But this burglary was different for two distinct reasons: the robbers knew exactly where to enter the building so the alarm system could be disabled almost instantly, according to Community CU CEO John Hirabayashi. And second, police say burglars have a new way to break into credit unions with branches located in strip malls. Rather than enter the credit union directly, the robbers instead gain entry to a business next door and simply smash through the wallboard of an interior wall, and then just walk into the credit union.

In the Memorial Day burglary, thieves broke into a dance studio located next door to Community First CU. Hirabayashi said that while kicking in wallboard is a crude method of getting inside a CU, these two burglars caught by surveillance cameras seemed to have detailed knowledge of the interior and were able to disable the alarm and also cut communications lines.

"A foot higher and they would (actually) hit the alarm panel," he said.

Once inside Community First CU, thieves cut the communication lines and repositioned interior closed-circuit cameras before breaking into teller drawers and cabinets, and then removing the rear panel of the ATM, police reports state. Hirabayashi pointed out that the branch had the normal array of motion sensors, "hard alarms" and cameras. This pair of burglars was able to defeat them and make off with an undisclosed amount of money.

While Hirabayashi is focusing on how the thieves gained so much knowledge of the Community First branch office, local police say there has been a rash of burglaries in the Jacksonville area using this method of entry.

Clay County Sheriff Rick Beseler said he's seen a recent pattern of strip mall burglaries focusing on one business located at the end of the building. "Anything with an expensive commodity," Beseler said.

Most Likely Wallboard

If a strip mall is already built by the time a business moves in, the interior wall toward the center of the strip was most likely built with wallboard. In the Jacksonville case, burglars have first cut off power lines, taking down the power grid for the entire building. Then thieves break in next door to their target to avoid sophisticated alarm systems or concrete block, and then break through the wall to get inside a jewelry store, gun shop or a credit union.

For a financial institution accustomed to focusing on exterior threats, thieves using this method can now enter a building and work directly on the rear panels of an ATM. If the rear of the ATM is exposed or easy to break into, burglars with prying tools, such as a crow bar, can cause a lot of harm, police say.

Even if thieves don't cut the power cables, police say they'll avoid coming through the front door or smashing a window as they know it will trigger an alarm. Simply kicking through drywall is their newest way around it, according to police. Police say it's possible that thieves already inside a business won't even be spotted from the outside, as the exterior of the building hasn't been disturbed.

"It's that easy. They don't need tools," said Clay County Deputy Ben Carroll, a Certified Crime Practitioner. "If they think they can break through a wall and be safe inside, they're going to do it."

But police say any financial institution can combat crime using a combination of "Crime Fighting 101" and some new technologies.

Police told The Credit Union Journal any financial institution, whether big-city bank or friendly, rural credit union, needs to create and observe basic security methods to prevent or minimize crime. Simple, basic measures should always be observed, such as an employee who quits and knows the location of a videocassette recorder (VCR) taping surveillance. The VCR might need to be moved, secured in some type of container or have a lock changed. Beseler said some financial institutions have actually had a VCR in plain view. Burglars snap up the tape and that's it, he said. "The lid is still up and the tape is gone. It happens all the time," Beseler said.

Deputy Carroll recommended both electronic observation and a human physical presence at a credit union. Carroll said law enforcement officials are well aware that many smaller CUs don't have endless resources, but still emphasize the importance of having both. After 27 years in law enforcement from street patrols to federal law enforcement, Carroll said he's used to how a criminal mind works.

"If they think you'll spend the money to hire a guard, they'll think you've spent the money for high security all around," he said.

Carroll said law enforcement always recommends video cameras, whether hidden or in plain sight. If a CU buys a video camera that uses cassette tapes, he recommends buying enough tape to switch out every day as the tapes deteriorate through use. After six months, Carroll advises buying an entire new batch of tapes. A bad tape will provide a bad picture and won't help much after a crime, he said.

Digital Cameras More Prevalant

Digital cameras are becoming more prevalent and have dropped in price dramatically, he noted. Both Beseler and Carroll said a great benefit of digital cameras is that a picture of the inside and outside of a CU can be transmitted off site. A branch manager or security official can check the CU at any time or when an alarm goes off, on purpose or by accident, such as a power supply disruption. Power outages are especially problematic in the state of Florida, the lightning strike capital of the nation.

Regarding thieves breaking through wallboard, Carroll said credit unions have a few options. First, he recommended that credit unions contact local law enforcement and ask for a visit from a crime prevention officer, such as himself. Carroll said these visits are free and provide invaluable advice. Carroll advised any financial institution should have separate power and communication lines, especially in strip malls where every business is on the same grid.

If a credit union is already located in a strip mall, Carroll said a vulnerable interior wall could be retrofitted with a harder product such as cement block or newer high impact wallboard constructed with Lexan plastic. Carroll said this type of wallboard is very difficult to get through and won't collapse after someone tries to kick it in. "I've seen them hit it with a sledgehammer and it just bounces off," Carroll said.

Any credit union considering using high impact wallboard should first contact their local fire marshal and building officials, according to U.S. Fire Administration official Tom Olshanski. Olshanski said firefighters would want to know where the high impact wallboard is located in case of an emergency.

"Just like firefighters need to break into a fire, they need to break out," he said.

Community First CU CEO Hirabayashi has posted a $5,000 reward for any information leading to the arrest of the two robbers.

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