July 9, 2021

Last summer, financial institutions throughout Texas started reporting a sudden increase in attacks involving well-orchestrated teams that would show up at night, use stolen trucks and heavy chains to rip Automated Teller Machines (ATMs) out of their foundations, and make off with the cash boxes inside. Now it appears the crime — known variously as “ATM smash-and-grab” or “chain gang” attacks — is rapidly increasing in other states.

Four different ATM “chain gang” attacks in Texas recently. Image: Texas Bankers Association.

The Texas Bankers Association documented at least 139 chain gang attacks against Texas financial institutions in the year ending November 2020. The association says organized crime is the main source of the destructive activity, and that Houston-based FBI officials have made more than 50 arrests and are actively tracking about 250 individuals suspected of being part of these criminal rings.

From surveillance camera footage examined by fraud investigators, the perpetrators have followed the same playbook in each incident. The bad guys show up in the early morning hours with a truck or tractor that’s been stolen from a local construction site.

Then two or three masked men will pry the front covering from the ATM using crowbars, and attach heavy chains to the cash machine. The canisters of cash inside are exposed once the crooks pull the ATM’s safe door off using the stolen vehicle.

In nearly all cases, the perpetrators are done in less than five minutes.

Tracey Santor is the bond product manager for Travelers, which insures a large number of financial institutions against this type of crime. Santor said investigators questioning some of the suspects learned that the smash-and-grabs are used as a kind of initiation for would-be gang members.

“One of the things they found out during the arrest was the people wanting to be in the gang were told they had to bring them $250,000 within a week,” Santor said. “And they were given instructions on how to do it. I’ve also heard of cases where the perpetrators put construction cones around the ATM so it looks to anyone passing by that they’re legitimately doing construction at the site.”

Santor said the chain gang attacks have spread to other states, and that in the year ending June 2021 Travelers saw a 257 percent increase in the number of insurance claims related to ATM smash-and-grabs.

That 257 percent increase also includes claims involving incidents where attackers will crash a stolen car into a convenience store, and then in the ensuing commotion load the store’s ATM into the back of the vehicle and drive away.

In addition to any cash losses — which can often exceed $200,000 — replacing destroyed ATMs and any associated housing can take weeks, and newer model ATMs can cost $80,000 or more.

“It’s not stopping,” Santor said of the chain gang attacks. “In the last year we counted 32 separate states we’ve seen this type of attack in. Normally we are seeing single digits across the country. 2021 is going to be the same or worse for us than last year.”

Increased law enforcement scrutiny of the crime in Texas might explain why a number of neighboring states are seeing a recent uptick in the number of chain gang attacks, said Elaine Dodd, executive vice president of the fraud division for the Oklahoma Bankers Association.

“We have a lot of it going on here now and they’re getting good at it,” Dodd said. “The numbers are surging. I think since Texas has focused law enforcement attention on this it’s spreading like fingers out from there.”

Chain gang members at work on a Texas bank ATM. Image: Texas Bankers Association.

It’s not hard to see why physical attacks against ATMs are on the rise. In 2019, the average amount stolen in a traditional bank robbery was just $1,797, according to the FBI.

In contrast, robbing ATMs is way less risky and potentially far more rewarding for the perpetrators. That’s because bank ATMs can typically hold hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash.

Dodd said she hopes to see more involvement from federal investigators in fighting chain gang attacks, and that it would help if more of these attacks were prosecuted as bank robberies, which can carry stiff federal penalties. As it is, she said, most incidents are treated as property crimes and left to local investigators.

“We had a rash of three attacks recently and contacted the FBI, and were told, ‘We don’t work these,'” Dodd said. “The FBI looks at these attacks not as bank robbery, but just the theft of cash.”

In January, Texas lawmakers are introduced legislation that would make destroying an ATM a third degree felony offense. Such a change would mean chain gang members could be prosecuted with the same zeal Texas applies to people who steal someone’s livestock, a crime which is punishable by 2-10 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000 (or both).

“The bottom line is, right now bank robbery is a felony and robbing an unattended ATM is not,” Santor said.

KrebsOnSecurity checked in with the European ATM Security Team (EAST), which maintains statistics about fraud of all kinds targeting ATM operators in Europe. EAST Executive Director Lachlan Gunn said overall physical attacks on ATMs in Europe have been a lot quieter since the pandemic started.

“Attacks fell right away during the lockdowns and have started to pick up a little as the restrictions are eased,” Gunn said. “So no major spike here, although [the United States is] further ahead when it comes to the easing of restrictions.”

Gunn said the most common physical attacks on European ATMs continue to involve explosives —  such as gas tanks and solid explosives that are typically stolen from mining and construction sites.

“The biggest physical attack issue in Europe remains solid explosive attacks, due to the extensive collateral damage and the risk to life,” Gunn said.

The Texas Bankers Association report, available here (PDF), includes a number of recommended steps financial institutions can take to reduce the likelihood of being targeted by chain gangs.

47 thoughts on “Spike in “Chain Gang” Destructive Attacks on ATMs

  1. John Fix

    The analog equivalent of a brute-force password attack?

  2. Nobby Nobbs

    How much money is in your bog standard ATM?

    Trying to understand the risk vs reward ratio here.

    1. upsers portal

      Thanks to this article I can learn more. Expand my knowledge and abilities. Actually the article is very real.

  3. JamminJ

    “The bottom line is, right now bank robbery is a felony and robbing an unattended ATM is not,” Santor said.

    Under current law, it is a second-degree felony to steal an ATM or the contents of an ATM. An unsuccessful theft is only a state-jail felony for “criminal mischief.” S.B. 516 would amend the criminal mischief statute to clearly provide that damage to or destruction of an ATM is a third-degree felony.

    So Santor misspoke.

    1. Bob

      I hope they did this properly with some minimum monetary damage requirement. We don’t need teenager to get a felony conviction for scratching up the ATM screen. Make them pay restitution to the ATM owner. I’ve lived in Texas long enough to know of some District Attorneys that would charge people that way.

      1. Piet

        I was thinking the same thing about something like an auto accident in which the driver loses control and quite coincidentally flattens an ATM, I can easily foresee felony charges being pressed in Texas

  4. Nicholas

    Maybe I’m way off here, but wouldn’t dye packs in the cash canisters help discourage these attacks? Surely it’d be easy enough to detect the brute-force impact and trigger the packs.

    1. Mobile Me

      It’s my understanding that some (all?) ATMs offer as an option cash cartridges that deploys dye when said carts are forced opened. Thought that would be standard gear these days.

    2. Tiny Naylor

      I would love to see the security cam video!

  5. The Sunshine State

    Doing bank robbery is federal felony , not a state , just wanted to add that in.

    1. JPA

      While the author uses the slogan “defund the police” many of the suggestions in the article are quite reasonable. Reducing the energy that the police put into minor crimes and less attention to possession of drugs would free up resources so police could concentrate more on serious crimes like those described in Brian’s post, or the cyber crimes in his other posts. I agree that “defund the police” is an unintelligent slogan, however there are certain expenditures that police departments have which are probably unhelpful, inappropriate and a waste of taxpayer dollars.

  6. James sandoval

    Enough money in all atm’s in Shelbyville, Tennessee to halt the ATM everyweek, digitally transfer money while in service to fast lane conv store ATM, and then withdraw same amount of money as A deposit, and also pay the guy in the wheelchair waiting at the same time. All atm’s banks accessible from Puerto Rico vpns, su terminal name printed on all James Sandoval’s ATM receipts, and all you need is A apple phone with metaslpoit.

  7. Andrew Rowe

    Cash has been fuelling crime for a hundred years. ATMs are falling out of use here in Australia as chip and pay proliferates. I think I only have cash to tip the pizza delivery. Never used it for anything else in 3 or 4 months.

  8. P.D.

    Not surprised. As the post (?) pandemic economy continues to deteriorate, expect more of this, a variation of the Midwest 1930’s Great Depression bank robberies.

    (Oh, and look at the U6 unemployment rates, not the trash figures fed to a largely credulous and regurgitative media.)

    History doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes.

    1. Moike

      U6 was 12% in January 2021, now down to 10%. ATM robberies are being driven by other factors.

      1. P.D.

        I hope you don’t think 10% is acceptable.

        Anyway, the standard deviation on this stuff is usually 1.7% either way, far from where we were post-pandemic. It’s going to take years to claw it back, unless Those In Control do a F.D.R. damn quick.

        …and “Normal” back in 2019 wasn’t that hot…and if you think it was, you are very young, mon ami.

        1. mealy

          No worries. Biden will simply stare into Putin’s soul and ask nicely.
          Poof, hackers disappear. Sorted. The power of gravitas.

          1. Chris Holland

            It’s fortuitous that you didn’t espouse such sacrilege on Facebook or Twitter!

            You’d already have been eviscerated by the lefty woke mob more comprehensively than a dynamited ATM and then cancelled, banned and defriended.

  9. Rich S

    I remember the 1970’s when it was people with pickups and winches yanking the night deposit box out of the wall at the banks. Then they improved the lighting at night and installed cameras as well as better securing the box.
    It is only a matter of time before they scan the serial numbers on currency and ideally delete from the list when authorized withdrawals occur so they can track the currency that is stolen.

    1. d32of89ydh

      Up till the 90s people were picking the “high security” pin tumbler locks on drive-thru deposit boxes and duct taping garbage bags in.

      Since we are on past tense: I remember in the early two-thousands the embedded XP and leased-line ATM networks use to get wormed from routing and staff infection mistakes. They worked hard to keep the news offline to protect stock values like casinos do. They all use buggy outsource software solutions like BlueWave(?) network tunneling but it’s still all ISO-7810 going over leased line WAN. A few years back a lot poor-infrastructure countries got attacks that basically MITM ISO-7810 iteself

  10. moreDthanU

    I’ve thought for a while we might have enough computing power to scan every bit of currency everywhere. At least $20 and larger. Could eliminate counterfeiting within a year. Scan $100 with your phone and know it’s serial number is recorded else where and decline to accept it. Money laundering, tax cheating, drug dealing, counterfeiting, all kinds of privacy based transactions would become more difficult.

  11. D. Mitchell

    I would think that this could be easily solved by putting a battery and a GPS locating device in the box. Once the ATM detects that it has been disconnected it could turn on the GPS. Or it could leave the GPS locator on all the time.
    By the time the thieves can get the box open the location of where they are is known.
    What’s wrong with this? They are BANKERS and they won’t part with the cash to do this as they squeeze every dollar. Just kidding.

    1. A. E. Newman

      Or, simply put up a sign on the ATM stating, “This ATM has GPS locating devices” and see how fast the rates drop.

      1. JamminJ

        See how fast they start buying aluminum foil to make a blanket.

    2. d. Mitchell

      Follow up to my post. Or simply put a sign on the ATM in big letters that can be seen from the street saying
      See how fast the numbers drop on those machines.

    3. JamminJ

      Might have to switch to composite material. Don’t want to sacrifice hardened steel to get a reliable GPS.
      There’s a reason why car GPS antenna are external to the metal bodywork.

      Of course, no matter how the ATM places the GPS, it’ll be no match for a foil lined blanket.

    4. Christoph

      Why track the stolen ATM, explosive dye packs for the cash compartments have been in the market for ages.

      1. D. Mitchell

        Real explosive packages!! Wrapped in sharpnel.

  12. Laird Dampnut

    The machines don’t have an alarm triggered if the case is breached without the use of the bank manager’s key? Five minutes is easily long enough for the fuzz to get there in response to an alarm.

    1. RP

      5 Minute response time would be unheard of for one of our ATMs. 15 to 20 is more likely.

  13. Mark

    America is a lawless fourth world sh*thole run by two corrupt money laundering front organizations (the DNC & RNC) who in addition to plundering the country for 50 years now officially condone looting, robbery, attacks against private property and obscene behavior in public. Who cares what kind of Felony it is given that no one will ever be prosecuted for these crimes.

    1. Larry

      I wish I could argue with you. However, it is very true!

    2. Srsly

      Don’t tempt JamminJ the fake lawyer to explain the history of the world part 1 again.

  14. Jim Marshall

    And I presume it to be illegal to booby-trap the ATM?

    1. Chris Holland

      I’m sure that the good ol’ boys in Texas would be willing to pass a ‘stand your grand’ exemption for ATMs. Provided that the blast radius could be limited to, say, 20 feet. Or perhaps a downward facing shape charge that would launch the pickup truck into orbit to follow Bezos’ Blue Origasm.

  15. Calgacus

    This sort of crime has been going on regularly since the early 00’s in the UK.

    It rises and falls in terms of how many per year and is largely linked to “travellers/travelling community” over here – they steal the telehandlers/farm equipment elsewhere to extract the entire ATM during the early hours and move it to a remote location where they extract the cash cartridges. This IMHO tends to peak just after a recession where they can’t get any of their normal cash “work”.

    Frankly its easy money in terms of risk/reward as there’s no firearms or violence against the person so sentencing is 10 years less than you’d normally get for robbing a bank of the equivalent amount.

    There’s also another group which were active until fairly recently who took the approach of filling the ATM with methane/butane and then igniting it. This got a lot more attention from the cops as you can imagine & I think nearly all of them are in prison for both robbery (light sentence) and conspiracy to cause explosions (up to life sentence). The vast majority of cash cartridges actually survived this method.

    In terms of tracking the ATM unit – don’t be naive guys. You can buy all the equipment you need to attenuate/jam the signal off fleabay for a few hundred quid these days.

    A friend who worked in banking security in the 00’s said she saw a pronounced shift from card-based fraud to theft of cash (from ATMs) when chip & pin got rolled out in the UK. They didn’t expect this but she said in retrospect it made sense as it was viewed as a “victimless crime” – much like card fraud.

    ATMs back then were apparently a lot easier to lever out of the walls of third-party buildings like supermarkets without resorting to demolishing the building around the ATM like now. They were also pretty shoddy on security which meant the cash cartridges supposedly in the machine might not be there/may be the wrong ones – which was another method of theft.

    tl;dr – nothing new really, wait until they work out you can blow them up (relatively) safely and get all the cash….

  16. Mike Reed

    Theft from an ATM in Texas, regardless of amount, is a second degree felony. Texas Penal Code 31.03(E)(6).

  17. Chris Holland

    Oh the irony. Budding young cash machine blaggers vying to gain entry into a lucrative chain gang.

    Be careful what you wish for lads. You’ll almost certainly get your wish and you’ll be mentored by rather humourless and unfriendly looking gentlemen with mirror shades and shotguns. The pay won’t be quite as advertised at just $8 a week and you can only spend it in the company shop. But your accommodation and food is taken care of and you get free hot showers. Just remember though, DO NOT drop the soap!

  18. Jerry Werzinsky

    I was a bank investigator a number of years ago. Most bank robberies are single transaction robberies which are basically cash withdrawals: the robber gives the teller a note, the teller gives the robber the money. Also I would think if an ATM is getting ripped out of a wall you would get a loss of signal and not a burglary alarm, since the alarm line is being ripped out too.

  19. Bob Dawson

    It’s apparent that most of you don’t work with ATMs. The cassettes are plastic and generally not locked. The cash is loaded very quickly by a low wage person carrying a gun. There is no system for detecting if a cassette was forced open, and false activations of such a system would be high. Die packs would also not work for the same reason. We have enabled triggering the Burglar Alarm based on the hood being opened, instead of the vault, to reduce risk. Some banks install bollards and a large locking cross bar, but such a system would also slow weekly cash servicing as well. Smaller ATMs usually have less than $30K in Cash and Larger At Branch ATMs less than $100K. So the statement about hundreds of thousands in cash inside ATMs is exaggerated.

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