Your ATMs are germ central

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What’s cleaner than a credit union ATM? Try a New York City subway pole.

It may seem unlikely, but a new study from LendEDU found that ATMs across New York City were dirtier than a range of places one usually associates with grime, such as a bathroom in New York City’s Penn Station.

There were some bright spots – ATMs were cleaner than the average parking meter, park bench and McDonald’s door handle.

Though the results could be brushed aside as simply entertaining, there are takeaways for credit unions, including institutions should make an effort to clean their ATMs for the sake of their members and their image.

“You can go into any urban or rural location with ATMs … and over time if they’re not maintained, you’re going to have the same experience,” said Terry Pierce, senior product manager for ATMs at CO-OP Financial Services. “It’s going to be dirty.”

Using handheld hygiene testing devices, LendEDU examined 20 cash machines from a variety of financial institutions across New York City, split between 10 in high-traffic areas like Times Square and Midtown Manhattan, and less heavily populated areas like the West Village.

Each machine was tested for adenosine triphosphate – a method the Centers for Disease Control recommends for monitoring hospital cleanliness – and measured in reflective light units (RLUs). The higher the number of RLUs, the dirtier the surface.

Rather than a keypad or touchscreen, LendEDU found card readers were on average the dirtiest part of an ATM, a factor many interviewed for this story were hard pressed to explain.

Mike Brown, a research analyst at LendEDU and author of the report, said the biggest surprise about the study was simply how gross ATMs were.

“You would figure they would be decently dirty … [but] a lot of them were dirtier than stuff like Citi Bikes and subway ticket machines.”

Despite those individual instances, subway ticket machines and Citi Bikes on average were worse than ATMs.

Though the study was done entirely in New York and covered almost exclusively big bank ATMs – Brown was unable to find a credit union ATM while doing his field research – he and others suggested those factors had only a minimal impact on the results, and that New York’s ATMs are not likely to be significantly cleaner or dirtier than elsewhere.

“I think across the board they’re all going to be pretty dirty,” said Brown.

While New York-area ATMs might be grubbier because of the number of people using them, “part of me thinks maybe these ATMs are more staffed and get paid attention to more just by being in New York City, so maybe they’re getting cleaned more than your ATMs in the middle of the country,” added Brown. “I could see both sides, but I lean more toward New York ATMs just being dirtier on average.”

Several sources said there aren’t necessarily requirements for ATM cleanliness but there are incentives to properly maintain them. While filthy cash machines don’t present any real financial risks for credit unions, Pierce noted that there are risks from a branding perspective since consumers may not want to use a credit union’s soiled ATM and that could impact how they think about the institution writ large.

Consumers could also avoid one machine in favor of another, more sanitary cash dispenser. Dirty card readers can route a transaction from chip to magnetic stripe or even prevent consumers from being able to utilize all the features of an ATM, said David Tente, executive director of the ATM Industry Association.

Manufacturers recommend that card readers are cleaned on a certain schedule, Tente said.

It’s “an unwritten tenant of the industry that if you’re an ATM deployer, you want your ATM to look clean and inviting to people,” Tente said.

Skip the sushi

Coastal Credit Union in Raleigh, N.C., has about 30 branded ATMs along with nearly 80 interactive teller machines that allow members to do basic banking along with traditional ATM services. Joe Mecca, vice president of communications, said the $3.1 billion-asset credit union’s service team cleans all machines at least weekly. That includes an emphasis on ITMs, which also have a handset for phone interactions.

Still, Mecca said the study’s results weren’t a surprise. In any instance where people are regularly interacting with the machines, he said, it’s natural that they’ll get grimy.

“A densely populated area with higher traffic … is probably going to see a higher level of dirtiness, but you can have a high-volume ATM in [anywhere] that will see the same thing,” he said. “I’m not going to go on the assumption that New Yorkers are dirtier and don’t wash their hands as often.”

Coastal and other credit unions have branches in a variety of areas that get exposed to different kinds of dirtiness – everything from germs and bacteria to dust and grime from rural areas, Mecca said.

“More rural areas where folks are working outside and with farm animals could be a whole different level of disgusting,” he added.

Still, Mecca added that most ATMs probably aren’t any worse “than anything else you touch on a daily basis.”

“I’m not going to eat sushi on one of them, but I’m going to think that if I’ve handled this and others have handled this, I’m going to make sure my hands are clean afterward,” he said.

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