deprive neighborhoods without banks of access to cash
Imran Pirzada had a sinking feeling when a police officer’s phone call woke him early one January morning.
With a “heavy heart,” the Marathon gas station franchisee drove to his Cockeysville business, where he found his store’s glass door hanging crooked in its frame, shards of glass strewn everywhere — and a hole where the ATM had stood.
“I wasn’t expecting this much of a damage,” Pirzada said in an interview a month after the incident, as repairmen worked on replacing the steel-framed glass of his storefront. “It was a mess.”
Pirzada’s business, hit on the second day of the new year, is hardly the only one where thieves in search of cash smashed a vehicle into a storefront and made off with the ATM. Law enforcement officials say the Baltimore region has experienced an uptick in ATM thefts and burglaries beginning last fall — building on a trend over the last few years of individuals and crews targeting ATMs in gas stations, convenience stores and drugstores.
It’s a problem that has plagued small businesses in the region for years, and an FBI official says it’s been seen a problem nationwide since at least 2018.
ATM industry experts described the thefts and burglaries as “low tech” compared to other crimes such as those that steal users’ information, but said they appear to be surging during the coronavirus pandemic.
The eye-catchingly destructive crime, with its potential for a quick cash grab for perpetrators, carries big bills for damage done to local businesses. State consumer advocates also say it can have a “ripple effect” on underbanked communities’ access to cash and to the local economies that rely on it.
“To folks who ... don’t live in low-income communities that so largely use cash, it doesn’t seem like such a big deal to lose your ATM. But for the folks who are actually losing the ATM, that’s the loss of their access to get their grocery money,” said Robyn Dorsey, the Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition’s fair housing director. She’s worked on banking access for low- and moderate-income communities for more than a decade.
Pirzada, who said he knew of the string of thefts in the Baltimore region, thought his business was safe because the money machine was bolted to the floor, tucked between two refrigerated drink cases and backed up to a part of the building next to an inaccessible corner of the parking lot.
It wasn’t enough. Perpetrators appeared to have smashed through the entire storefront, yanking out the machine with roughly $7,000 in cash in it, Pirzada said. No surveillance video exists; the footage was lost as part of the damage done during the break-in, he added.
That’s similar to the playbook described by law enforcement officials: Suspects arrive overnight in a stolen vehicle and use it as a battering ram to make quick work of the storefront in what’s referred to as a “crash-and-grab” or “smash-and-grab.” Perpetrators then use tools to snatch the ATM and get away, sometimes in under three minutes. They’ll later break open the ATM to get the cash out and ditch the machine and the vehicle.
“The whole point is to get money,” said FBI Supervisory Special Agent Shayne Buchwald, who oversees the Baltimore field office’s violent crimes task force. “Bank robbers, they rob banks to get money. It’s the same with these ATM incidents.”
The quick getaway and lack of witnesses can complicate a law enforcement investigation. Local agencies say they’re sharing information with one another, along with federal law enforcement, and Buchwald said the FBI will help investigate whether or not the ATM is bank-owned and therefore federally insured.
“This has been going on for some time now, and we just want to help anybody we can to catch these criminals who are terrorizing the communities and the store owners,” she said. “It doesn’t need to rise to a federal case for us to assist.”
Buchwald and others declined to say how many crews they believe are behind the recent uptick in cases, but she said it was “definitely more than one,” based on physical descriptions and surveillance footage from businesses. She added there might be “copycat” crews, but didn’t want to speculate further.
There have been a handful of arrests, including four people accused last month of working together in Baltimore County to ram an Exxon gas station and take the business’ ATM.
In charging documents, police wrote that detectives identified a gray 2009 Infiniti as the vehicle trailing stolen vans used in a string of ATM thefts. Police did undercover surveillance on the vehicle on Jan. 31, following it in Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Prince George’s County, watching it and a white passenger van drive to an Exxon on North Charles Street in Baltimore County.
There, police wrote, the van rammed the front of the gas station, destroying glass panels. Two suspects were seen loading the ATM into the van and both vehicles left the scene. Officers arrested four suspects, ages 21 through 26.
Other recent arrests include a city public works employee who police said was stopped in December with chains tying a city-owned truck to an ATM. The truck had been reported stolen in Carroll County. Meanwhile, a 18-year-old was arrested in October while police said the man was fleeing an attempted ATM theft at a Cockeysville bank.
Baltimore County Police Lt. Michael Norris, who commands the agency’s burglary unit of roughly 20 investigators, declined to comment on how many incidents the four suspects arrested in January are connected to. But one of them told police he’d joined two of the others for four to five robberies since the start of 2022, according to charging documents.
Norris said perpetrators don’t have a “jurisdictional boundary” and go wherever they want each night, making it “critical” for agencies to share information.
“Each new case gives us more and more information,” he said.
A spokeswoman for Baltimore County Police, Joy Stewart, said the agency saw 38 ATM thefts and burglaries, both attempted and successful, in 2020. Last year, there were 34, with 31 of them coming between Sept. 29 and Dec. 29.
Baltimore Police said the city had 73 ATM larcenies or burglaries in 2021, following 70 reported the year prior. So far in 2022, Baltimore has seen 18, said Detective Donny Moses, a spokesman for the department. There was one case closed in 2021 and another this year.
A Howard County Police spokeswoman said the county had not seen a significant increase — two ATMs stolen and two attempts in 2021, compared to three attempts and none successful in 2020, and four attempts and two stolen in 2019. Anne Arundel County Police said the county had nine ATM incidents last year, with three burglaries, two stolen from an open business, two attempts and two tampering incidents.
Would-be thieves struck Harford County in December, backing a van into the entrance to a Walgreens in Abingdon. Four people got out of the van and tried to move the ATM, but couldn’t, the sheriff’s office said. They fled and the van, previously reported stolen in Baltimore, was found abandoned in Abingdon.
Pirzada, the Cockeysville gas station owner, estimated his damages have totaled about $40,000 and weeks’ worth of business. He described picking pieces of glass out of candy bars and other merchandise beneath the shattered windows and tossing out what was damaged. Everything in one refrigerator case was too impacted to be sold.
As for the stolen ATM? Pirzada doesn’t plan to replace it.
“It’s not worth it,” he said.
Bruce Renard, executive director for The National ATM Council, said there are a variety of business models for retail ATMs, including machines owned by independent ATM companies or by merchants themselves. Replacements can cost several thousand dollars, depending on the model.
To communities that rely on cash, particularly those in a banking desert, like parts of East and West Baltimore, ATMs are “lifelines,” access points to the broader economy and to traditional financial institutions that are key to building wealth, consumer advocates said. Plus, consumers losing access to cash can affect “microbusinesses,” like someone selling cold water on the street or people selling snowballs out of a truck, Dorsey said.
ATMs aren’t perfect — the fees can be a burden — but they’re “meeting a need” in ensuring people can access their cash, including from Social Security or temporary assistance benefits, said Emily Scarr, state director of Maryland PIRG, a nonprofit group that advocates for public interest issues. And other options to access cash, such as check cashing businesses, can be “even more predatory,” she said.
“As local businesses remove ATMs out of fear of theft ... that’s limiting banking options for people, and probably more so for people who already don’t have access to banks in their neighborhood or access to transportation,” Scarr said. “It’s putting a heavier burden on those folks who already probably see a higher burden for banking already.”
In the meantime, law enforcement and industry experts have offered tips for businesses to ward off theft attempts: move the machine to the back of a building, away from an exterior wall; consider installing bollards — concrete or steel posts — to prevent cars from hitting the front of a structure; install a good surveillance system; and look into tracking devices or other anti-theft options for the machine, such as exploding dye packs.
Renard said that with ATMs serving a vital function in communities, it’s important they be protected and for law enforcement to work with the industry and operators to create a “solid communications link” and share information “to catch the criminal and put a stop to it.”
“This is where the rubber meets the road in cash,” Renard said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Jessica Anderson contributed to this article.
Darcy Costello, Baltimore Sun
Tue, February 22, 2022, 6:00 AM·