How to Safely and Securely Use ATMs

ATMs offer convenience but it’s important to keep safety in mind when using them

There are more than 470,000 automated teller machines (ATMs) in the U.S., including those owned by banks and those that are independently owned. ATMs make withdrawing funds, checking balances, and conducting other transactions quick and convenient, but they can also be targets for criminal activity. There are no routinely collected national collected statistics on ATM-related crime in the U.S. However, Travelers Insurance reported a 220% increase in “smash and grab” ATM thefts from 2019 to 2020, as reported by Claims Journal. As the COVID-19 pandemic shifts the banking landscape to encourage more-frequent ATM use, as opposed to visiting the teller window, safety is more important than ever.

Key Takeaways

  • ATMs offer a simple way to access your money, but they can also become a target for criminals.
  • Learning basic safety and security practices can help you protect yourself when using your bank’s or another provider’s ATM.
  • In addition to direct criminal attacks, ATMs can also be used to scam bank customers out of their money or personal information.
  • If you suspect ATM fraud, it’s important to report it to your bank to limit losses for unauthorized charges.

How to Use ATMs Safely

Staying safe at the ATM starts with exercising common sense. With that in mind, here are some of the most important safety tips to know when using ATMs.

  • Be mindful of location. Safely visiting an ATM starts with location awareness. For instance, using an ATM that’s in a well-lit area that many people pass through may be more secure than using an ATM that’s tucked in an out-of-the-way, poorly lit spot. Be aware of possible blind spots, such as corners or alcoves, that could shield a criminal from your view.
  • Use your bank’s ATM whenever possible. Free-standing ATMs, such as the kind you might see in grocery stores or malls, may be easier for criminals to tamper with versus an ATM that’s located at your bank. For example, criminals may be able to attach devices that can steal your personal identification number (PIN) or account number. Visiting your bank to use the ATM could cut down some of the risk if the machine is not easily accessible to those who aren’t customers or is monitored by bank security cameras.
  • Inspect the machine. If you’re using an ATM that doesn’t belong to your bank, then give it a quick once-over to look for anything that seems out of place. If the keypad seems loose or wobbly, a key sticks, or the on-screen instructions aren’t what you’re used to seeing at an ATM, it could be a red flag that it’s been tampered with by a scammer.
  • Use built-in security measures if they’re available. If your bank’s ATM is located inside an enclosed vestibule that requires your card to enter, choose it over an ATM that anyone can walk or drive up to. Ensure that the door closes behind you and don’t open the door for anyone who doesn’t have a card and asks you to let them in.
  • Keep your distance. When using the ATM in a public space, keep some distance between yourself and others. Don’t allow anyone to stand close behind you, as they may be able to see your PIN as you enter it. And avoid writing your PIN on the back of your card, as this could make you an easy target for theft if you lose it.
  • Be aware of your surroundings. When using an ATM, be cognizant of who is around you. For example, take note of people who seem to be hanging around the machine or walking past it repeatedly. Be aware of anyone who may be sitting in a parked car or any vehicles that appear to follow you after you leave the ATM.
  • Stay secure at the drive-thru. If you pull up to a drive-thru ATM, keep your doors locked and your car running. Keep the windows up, other than the one you’re using to access the machine. Don’t exit the vehicle for any reason, even if the ATM eats your card and refuses to return it.
  • Don’t linger. When visiting the ATM, consider beforehand what you need to do, so you can get in and out as quickly as possible. If you need to make a deposit, prepare your deposit envelope at home to save time at the ATM. Don’t count cash while standing near the machine; wait until you can get to a safe space. For example, if you have driven to the ATM, wait until you’ve returned to your car and locked the doors. If you must wait until you get home, don’t worry. The bank is aware of security risks involving ATMs and should understand the delay in reporting a mistake.
  • Keep track of receipts. Be sure to get a receipt for any ATM transactions you conduct and check them against your bank statements later. This can help you spot inaccuracies or potential fraud if you used your debit or ATM card at a machine you don’t normally use. (It can also help you get fees charged for using an ATM that isn’t your bank’s reimbursed.) Never leave a receipt behind. Many times you can request your receipt be sent by email.
  • Trust your instincts. If something seems off about an ATM, a transaction, or someone who’s nearby, trust your gut. Cancel the transaction and promptly exit. If you suspect you’re being followed, get to a safe public location, such as a busy store or hotel lobby, then call 911 if the person following you is still there. If you’re in a car, drive to the nearest police station.

If someone attempts to rob you at an ATM, it’s important to comply to avoid physical harm, then call the police as soon as the robber leaves.

What to Do if Your ATM or Debit Card Is Stolen

A stolen ATM or debit card can be a financial liability if the thief is able to use it to access your accounts. If your card is lost or stolen, it’s important to report it to the bank as soon as possible. This can help to limit your liability for losses. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) outlines the guidelines for losses as follows:

Lost or Stolen ATM and Debit Card Liability Limits
 If You Report Your Maximum Loss
Before unauthorized charges are made $0
Within two business days of learning about the loss or theft $50
More than two business days after you learn about the loss or theft but less than 60 calendar days after your statement is sent to you  $500
More than 60 calendar days after your statement is sent to you All the money taken from your ATM/debit card account and possibly more, such as money in accounts linked to your debit account

As you can see, the longer you wait to report a lost or stolen ATM or debit card, the more responsibility you end up bearing for any unauthorized withdrawals or purchases. Credit cards can offer greater liability protection, so you may consider opting for credit in place of debit for making purchases.

If a stolen ATM or debit card is the result of a criminal assault at an ATM, you also need to report that to the police. Providing as much detail as possible about the person who took your card is important for helping law enforcement identify the suspect.

Entering your PIN backward at the ATM will not automatically summon police, so don’t believe this banking myth.

A Final Tip

One final tip for staying safe at the ATM is finding other ways to manage banking transactions. If you need to deposit a check, for example, you could use a drive-up teller window instead or your bank’s mobile check deposit option if one is available. If you need cash to pay back a friend, you could send it using your bank’s person-to-person payment service. Thinking along these lines can help you reduce the odds of being targeted at an ATM, as you won’t have to visit them as often. If you’re shopping around for the best checking accounts, keep those kinds of features in mind.

How Can Using an ATM Be Unsafe?

A criminal can tamper with an ATM machine in such a way as to acquire your PIN or account number. That’s why it’s better to use one inside a bank than a free-standing one at a mall or store. Also, ATMs located in dimly lit, less-traveled places put you at risk of being physically robbed of your cash, especially if you choose to count cash at the machine. Wait instead until you are in a safe place: your locked car or your home, for example.

If My ATM or Debit Card Is Stolen, What Am I Liable For?

If you report it before any charges are made on it, you are not liable for anything at all, even if a charge does go through after your report. If you report it within two business days of the theft, you are liable for up to $50. If you report it after more than two business days but fewer than 60 calendar days, you are liable for up to $500. After that you are liable for the entire amount stolen, including money taken from other accounts linked to the card.

Does Entering My PIN Backward Call the Police?

No. This is a myth often promulgated on the internet. Use better, more trusted sources for your information than social media accounts and dodgy websites.

Article Sources

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  1. The Alaska State Legislature. "Locational Study of ATMs in the U.S. by Ownership." Page 3. Accessed Jan. 28, 2022.

  2. Arizona State University Center for Problem-Oriented Policing. "Robbery at Automated Teller Machines." Accessed Jan. 28, 2022.

  3. Claims Journal. "As Criminals Innovate, ATM Thefts Becoming a Growing Source of Insurer Loss." Accessed Jan. 28, 2022.

  4. U.S. Federal Trade Commission. "Lost or Stolen Credit, ATM, and Debit Cards." Accessed Jan. 28, 2022.

  5. Joseph Steinberg: Cybersecurity, Privacy, and Artificial Intelligence (AI) Advisor. "How to Protect Yourself From Being Robbed at an ATM." Accessed Jan. 28, 2022.