Fact Check

Newspaper Distributors Rob ATM Users

ATM users in the UK are robbed by newspaper distributors who jostle their victims during transactions.

Published Jul 26, 2011

Claim:   ATM users in the UK are robbed by newspaper distributors who jostle their victims during transactions.


Example:   [Collected via e-mail, April 2007]

Women being targeted at central London cash points

Just as a quick warning to you — I just got assaulted at an HSBC cashpoint in Hanover Sq at lunchtime (broad daylight, with a queue behind me) and £200 was taken from my account. Turns out there's a gang of very smart Romanians (in my case it was 2 guys and a girl) who are posing as free-newspaper-giver-outers - they waited until i'd keyed in my pin and hit the 'Get Cash' option before coming up from both sides, jostling me and thrusting their newspapers at me and trying to persuade me to take one.

Behind the papers, the guy on my left hit the £200 button and the girl on the right grabbed the cash — they were so fast that no one in the queue even saw them take it, and just assumed they were harrassing me to take a paper (my card got returned to me out of the machine). It was only when I went into the bank to tell them there were people harrassing cashpoint users and to double check they hadn't taken any cash that we realised. Went to the police and it turns out they've been targeting women around Mayfair and Goodge St and elsewhere around Oxford Circus with a huge number of incidents in the past couple of weeks — all in broad daylight and in very open places, and always taking £200. The advice is to use cash machines inside banks or get cashback if you're in these areas.


Origins:   This e-mail began landing in the snopes.com inbox in mid-April 2007. While we've yet to locate news articles about such robberies taking place in England, lack of published

confirmation doesn't necessarily rule them out, as information about every mugging doesn't always make it into the day's papers. Still, one would think a "huge number of incidents in the past couple of weeks" would have merited mention by the press who cover the crime beat.

Numerous readers from the UK have written to explain how their ATMs operate, and their descriptions rule out the crime being carried out in the fashion set forth in the e-mail. UK ATMs will return users' cards before dispensing the cash asked for, a bit of programming worked into those contraptions to prevent the absent-minded from taking their money but leaving their plastic in the machines.

As one of our readers explains:

So, for the crime to take place in the few seconds that the victim is distracted, the thieves would have to 1) hit the £200 button, 2) wait the few seconds it takes for the transaction to take place, 3) remove the victim's card (and usually the return of the card is accompanied by loud warning bleeps from the machine), 4) wait another few seconds for the cash to be dispensed (also accompanied by warning bleeps), and 5) reinsert the card in the machine's slot. Even if the victim's vision of the machine is blocked by the distracting paper vendor, they're going to hear something odd going on with their transaction, and the whole process can't be done in less than 20 seconds or so.

However, it does appear that the very form of theft described in the e-mail has been used successfully in Ireland. In May 2007, a 15-year-old Romanian boy pled guilty to employing this type of robbery with the help of an accomplice at an Ulster Bank ATM in Dublin plus at two other ATMs (banks unnamed) in the same city. In each case, the team made of with €200.

Still, though this particular crime can't be carried out at every ATM does not mean one is always entirely safe when using cashpoints. Pickpockets and muggers have been known to prey upon those who use ATMs, however. (Which makes perfect sense when you think about it: if you were a pickpocket or mugger, wouldn't you be inspired to hang about relatively unsupervised outdoor locations where potential victims go to load themselves up with cash?) It therefore pays to stay alert to one's surroundings when using these

There are precautions folks can take to lessen their chances of being victimized when using ATM or cashpoint machines. While some work to protect users from having their financial information stolen and others to lessen the chances of being mugged at the machines, they all bear taking to heart:

  • Always shield your PIN from prying eyes. Use your body to block anyone's view of the keypad, or cup your non-keying hand over the pad as you use it. Do this whether you're at an ATM, a gas pump, or inside a store.
  • Don't use an ATM if people insist upon standing around it. Politely ask them to move aside, and if they refuse, go somewhere else. If you find yourself being crowded while in the middle of a transaction, hit the "Cancel" button, remove the card from the machine and go elsewhere.
  • Don't use any ATM that appears to be out of the ordinary. Turn up your nose at cashpoints sporting signs affixed to the machines or instruction screens asking you to do things that don't seem right (such as entering your PIN multiple times). Report these discrepancies immediately to the bank in question or the police.
  • Get into the habit of using the same ATM for almost all of your transactions so as to better recognize when something is different with the machine. Be wary of any changes you see on its outside. If the ATM is affixed to a bank, walk in and ask why the changes were made.
  • Never take advice from "helpful" strangers about how to get your card back if an ATM keeps it. Report a machine-trapped card to your bank as soon as possible so that the card can be deactivated if it is was not kept for legitimate reasons.

Last updated:   25 July 2011


    breakingnews.ie.   "15-Year-Old Remanded on Bail For ATM Scam."

    28 May 2007.

David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.

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