A report from the American Bankers Association asserts that the automated teller machine safety measures reluctantly being installed by many financial institutions are not without benefits to the banks.

The report, entitled "ATM Security," summarizes the state of ATM safety -- including the status of various legislative efforts -- in the United States.

The issue has been a growing concern to bankers, as ATM crimes and the attention given them by the media have both risen in recent years.

The ABA report acknowledges that ATM crime is a serious problem.

However, the statistics it contains also suggest that there is no need for bankers to panic.

One-in-a-Million Chance

According to numbers gathered by the ABA in the late 1980s, less than one ATM transaction in a million results in a robbery or assault against the customer making the transaction.

This estimate is considered conservative by at least one ATM security expert who maintains that the actual rate of crime was -- and remains closer to -- one for every three million transactions.

"Over the last few years, the number of ATM crimes has risen, but the number of total ATM transactions has risen right along with it. As a result, the rate of ATM crime has stayed fairly level." said Barry Schreiber, a criminal justice professor at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota.

Mr. Schreiber, who publishes an ATM security newsletter, noted further that some areas of the country experience more crime than others.

In California, for instance, one in 1.2 million ATM transactions is affected by a crime, according to 1993 figures from the California Bankers Association.

New York and several southern states have similarly high ATM crime rates.

ATM users in the Midwest appear to be much less likely to be robbed or assaulted at an ATM, Mr. Schreiber and other observers said.

The ABA report asserts that ATM crime -- like regular street muggings -- is not necessarily preventable.

"Irrational behavior (such as that which occurs in a crime driven by the needs of chug addiction) is seldom influenced by rational deterrents, such as security cameras, jail time, or other penalties," the report said.

Nevertheless, even if this is true, bank customers and lawmakers in many regions of the country expect bankers to take steps to discourage ATM crime. The most obvious sign of these expectations is the recent preponderance of ATM security legislation.

California a Model

According to the ABA report, six states and two major cities have enacted ATM security legislation. The state laws in Washington, Nevada, Oregon, Maryland, Georgia, plus a local measure in Chicago, are patterned after California's law, which took effect in 1991 and sets standards for ATM lighting and for customer safety education.

A New York City law is a breed unto itself, with requirements for surveillance cameras and rear-view mirrors at every ATM site in the city.

A New Jersey bill patterned after the New York law is being considered by state legislators. Several other states, including Florida, are expected to pass legislation in the next few years.

Unequal Burden?

Some bankers argue that such legislation is placing a law-enforcement burden on financial institutions that other types of businesses are not forced to carry. The ABA report points out however, that despite the costs that ATM security legislation adds to electronic banking programs, the measures can bring some unexpected benefits to financial institutions.

Those that comply with the requirements of ATM safety laws may use that compliance to fend off liability suits from customers who were robbed at an ATM.

Frequent Litigation

Such lawsuits are fairly common, and the report cites a number of sample cases.

In addition, banks that aggressively install security measures can score points with customers and noncustomers alike by showing an interest in people's welfare.

Though such a move is unlikely to affect retail deposits directly, ATM security can contribute to a positive image that the bank can use in marketing itself, observers said.

"A person's chances of being robbed after or during an ATM transaction are small," said Mr. Schreiber. "But bankers have to be concerned about even the perception that ATMs are unsafe."

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