Every year in Germany there are still about 200 “stick-up-style” bank robberies.
But the old ways don’t work so well anymore. There’s a high risk of getting caught, and the rewards are quite low.
Now a new wave of bank robberies is taking a different route. Instead of pointing a gun at the teller, you blow up an ATM. There were 145 cases like this in Germany in 2015: Always at night, usually in rural areas or isolated urban locations. When it works, the tactic can net robbers as much as €100,000 ($109,000).
The plague of new robberies is concentrated in the north-west of the country, close to the Dutch border. The criminal bureau for the state of North Rhine-Westphalia reported 42 cases in the last three months of 2015. Since the beginning of the year, there have been further attacks, notably in the cities of Soest and Bonn.
The police are under pressure. So far, they have failed to catch any of the major criminal gangs involved, only scooping up some small-timers who jumped on the trend. No one has been injured in the attacks yet, but this may only be a matter of time.
It only takes a few minutes to blow up an ATM. The criminals carefully seal the machines in airtight wrapping, then pump in a special gas. They take cover, set off the explosion, then dash in to grab the money cases.
Professional ATM robbers come from the Netherlands, attack in Germany, then flee back across the border.
The growing number of cases is putting massive pressure on the banks to step up security and deter robbers. “You have to make things as difficult as possible for the criminals,” said a security expert from one of Germany’s regional savings banks.
“Disincentivizing the act” is the highest priority, said the police. In December, talks on the crisis were held between authorities, banks and insurance companies. The consensus was clear: Immediate action is needed. But there are no easy solutions, and certainly no cheap ones.
The insurance companies are pressing the banks hard. Provinzial Rheinland, a Düsseldorf-based insurer, has been particularly hard hit, forced to pay out for a total of 26 attacks in North Rhine-Westphalia. “The situation is critical. We are demanding active counter-measures from the banks,” said their spokesperson. The company is now openly threatening to stop insuring ATMs.
Authorities are working on a number of measures, including the so-called “ink solution,” which would cover banknotes in ink in the event of an explosion. This has had some success in Belgium and the Netherlands.
Responding to Handelsblatt’s inquiries, Postbank, one of Germany’s major savings institutions, said it had already implemented the “ink solution.” But it may not be a silver bullet: Postbank had 11 ATMs blown up last year. Rumor has it that not every Postbank cashbox was equipped with ink, so there was enough clean money to make attacks worthwhile.
The central organization of German regional savings banks wants a different solution – using “EAM technology” to make ATMs explosion-proof. Extra bolts and bars can be of help in this too, although there are still ways to cut these with machines.
Other banks want to deploy quick-release fog in ATM areas to immobilize robbers in the event of an attack, Handelsblatt has learned. But there is no one-size-fits-all solution, warns the industry group Deutsche Kreditwirtschaft. Different locations call for different answers.
Several bands of criminals are thought to be operating independently in the ATM attacks. Some have had considerable success, others less so. One group, now detained, from the western town of Cleves made a series of 13 unsuccessful attempts in a row.
Professional ATM robbers come from the Netherlands, it is thought, attacking in Germany then fleeing back across the border. But attacks have been taking place across the country.
“An ATM is the only point where cash is available on the ‘skin’ of the bank. That attracts criminals.”
In North Rhine-Westphalia, robbers got away with cash in 38 of 67 reported cases. Police put the relatively high number of failures down to imitators, amateurs who got wind of the new crime and tried it without the necessary skills. The state is taking the phenomenon very seriously. A new special investigation unit has been set up, with the acronym “Heat.”
Many of the imitators have no idea how much explosive to use, increasing the danger for residents and innocent bystanders. “It is a miracle that no one has been hurt yet,” said Dietmar Kneib, the detective heading up the new unit. Insiders estimate the average damage from an attack at around €100,000.
But Mr. Kneib is also considering the wider picture. “We have to take a broad general view of ATMs. How much cash do we really need in any specific place?” he asked. “An ATM is the only point where cash is available on the ‘skin’ of the bank. That attracts criminals,” he said.
At the end of the day, prevention is also a question of money. A new ATM costs about €20,000. For an additional €2,000, the leading manufacturer Wincor Nixdorf will install bolt-strengtheners. An EAM system costs about €3,000. A single ink cartridge can cost up to €1,000.
Ultimately, it is a question for the bank – how much is protecting an ATM worth?
Leonidas Exuzidis is a trainee journalist at Handelsblatt. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org