Cash machines generally seem innocuous enough. Branded bits of plastic that spit out cash, the worst thing they're really capable of being a charge for allowing you the luxury of accessing your own money. But some are a little more nefarious than that. Some, through no real fault of their own, are proper dicks.
One ATM in Mayfair, for example, is ground zero for the theft of what could be up to hundreds of thousands of pounds. The machine, situated on Conduit Street, has been named by the Metropolitan Police as the most hit cashpoint in central London, regularly targeted by international fraudsters for cash machine stings.
The methods vary, but in the past gangs have successfully placed a whole fake fascia over the machine that saves users' bank details. Other techniques range from those done on the cheap – a camera torn from the innards of a mobile phone to capture your PIN as you type it – to bespoke designs for individual machines.
The European gangs are ruthless, even attacking police when challenged. In a recent assault within a mile of Conduit Street, a female police officer was knocked unconscious in broad daylight while apprehending a scammer tampering with a machine.
PC Darren Bond of the Oxford Street, Regent Street and Bond Street (ORB) Anti-Pickpocketing Unit says the Conduit Street site is notorious: "This is an ATM we have a close look at two or three times per day. In our experience it's the most hit in the area. It often gets hit by ATM fraudsters who will put skimming devices that will catch cards or take the details off them. You have a very popular nightclub nearby, and they'll put the device on in the evenings to get people's details when they are inebriated or in a rush to get a cab home. Fraudsters like clubbers, as they can perform a maximum withdrawal on your card just before midnight, and then again a few minutes later when the new day starts."
Conveniently, the ATM is on a side street, providing the fraudsters just enough secrecy to operate. The thieves prefer a so-called "Lebanese Loop" system – a device inserted into the machine to collect your card information – coupled with a hidden camera or "shoulder surfer", a person who spies on your details from behind and steals your PIN.
PC Bond says, "These are very organised Romanian gangs. They make it hard for us by always breaking the evidential loop that links them together. Two will put the device on, gathering tightly around the machine to stop CCTV seeing what they are up to. They'll go and you'll never see them again. Another duo, unseen before, will take turns keeping an eye on the machine. Then a new duo will come and get the skimmer just as the batteries are running out on it. These skimmer devices last three to four hours – you can get hundreds of details in that time."
Organised international gangs are increasingly targeting wealthy tourists in central London for rich, easy pickings. VICE revealed last month that two Chilean women were arrested and charged after wearing burqas to steal the handbags and belongings of wealthy Arab tourists filing out of Park Lane and Mayfair, making off with €130,000, £20,000 and gold and diamond jewellery in just one theft.
So sophisticated are the scams that even up close they escape detection. PC Bond says, "I've been in this job four years now, a police officer for ten. I struggle to see these devices – they are so good. Very often thieves will prise off part of the branded fascia with a wallpaper scraper, then replace it with an identical-looking piece of plastic with a camera set inside it so that can scan your PIN. That, or they'll put a whole new plastic front with scamming devices hidden within it that looks like a new machine."
On inspection, the machine itself looks harmless, until the fraud team point out evidence of tampering: tape marks where cameras have been attached running horizontally across the panels. If you were normal height and looking down you wouldn't see a camera fixed in there.
Fraud losses on UK cards were worth over £450 million in 2013, according to Financial Fraud Action, up 16 percent from the previous year. Staggeringly, just over £301 million of that was remote purchase fraud – fraudulently obtained card payments – such as those involved in ATM scams.
It's big business, and something that thieves aren't scared of resorting to violence to protect. PC Bond was assaulted and his female colleague punched unconscious in one daylight sting. He says, "We saw a known offender withdrawing some cash with what we believed to be a stolen card. I apprehended him and he immediately started punching me in the face. I held on to him, and his brother also turned and started punching me and a WPC. They got away into a getaway car, while I had my tooth go through my lip and my female colleague got punched and knocked out."
It's very hard to prosecute ATM fraud as it's very hard to apprehend offenders in the act, says PC Bond. "You need to catch them not just mid-theft, but actually walking around with the skimmer for some time. If you apprehend them at an ATM with a device, they just say, 'Oh, sorry, it came off in my hand. I was on the way to the police station to hand it in.' The audacity of them is incredible."
A senior sergeant with the ORB team said it is nearly impossible to track individual ATM fraudsters, as the Romanian gang constantly change the members used. "It's very rare that we are dealing with the same people again and again. Usually after the first or second time they have been arrested they either go up north or leave the country. We have specific addresses that we deal with that these people use. Half the time we arrive there and the first lot have left and new internationals have moved in."
Of course, that's if they remain in the UK. PC Paul Penrose says the Romanian gangs form "theft tourism" crews across Europe. "The gang masters are flying them in here but keep them moving because they aren't allowed to stay in the UK unless they have an NI number and right to work and are self sufficient. They will move around so they can't be detected, into Madrid, Barcelona, Paris, wherever. The top ones are dealing in more advanced areas of crime – human trafficking, brothels and drug dealing."
The most simplistic ATM scam gangs use is "shoulder surfing", a theft that normally involves two thieves. The first will stand behind you while you draw cash, attempting to get your PIN. The second thief will then distract you before your card reappears, allowing the first to take the card out of the machine as you wait for your cash.
But others, such as "cash traps", are more technical. A device blocks your cash from coming come out and – while you go inside the bank to complain or walk away – the thief removes the trap and gets your cash.
Police warn that the offenders' main target is your PIN, with many frauds continuing days after it was taken as so few people check their balances regularly. PC Bond warns, "Please completely cover over your hand when you type in your PIN so it can't be seen above or behind. If they don't have your PIN, your card details are less use to them."
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