Sometimes, they operate with the speed and precision of a NASCAR pit crew — prying open the locked steel gates and doors of small businesses around Baltimore, then lifting away ATMs and hurrying them to a waiting pickup truck or van.
Other times, the thieves use vehicles — typically stolen — as battering rams to force entry. They crash through storefronts to commit a small bank robbery that does not require holding up a teller.
The chaotic crimes have continued on and off for months, with small businesses and one ATM distributor saying it’s a new and alarming trend. During the course of one hour as the sun came up June 27, three stores were hit in west, northeast and midtown Baltimore, including someone ramming into a gas station on Moravia Road. A similar wave occurred early July 14.
“They are fast,” said Steve Seo, 61, whose Mount Vernon liquor store was hit, a crime captured on store surveillance. “They look like professionals. They know what they’re doing.”
Maggie Ybarra, an independent crime scene photographer who has tracked ATM thefts since fall, gave one of the crews a nickname — the Ching Bandits, for “cha-ching.”
They’ve used different methods and vehicles, causing police to believe it’s not just the work of one crew and that others are getting in on the crime. In February, thieves attached a chain to an ATM inside a 24-hour laundromat on the West Side and dragged it out through a glass window. In April, a stolen drywall company truck was found loaded with discarded stolen ATMs. For a time, one crew appeared to be using a stolen U-Haul that police later recovered.
“It started out probably as one crew, but I think word got out on the streets that this was a low-risk, high-reward thing,” said Baltimore Police Lt. Col. Kevin Jones, who helps lead the patrol division.
The focus of the crimes are the small free-standing ATMs found inside small businesses. Many of the businesses are fortified with bulletproof barriers and other security measures to protect their employees, cash registers and products. But the ATMs must be accessible to customers, and so sit in common areas.
The problem has gotten so bad that some store owners said they’ve taken to emptying the machines nightly, to limit the potential losses. The machines weigh about 200 pounds, according to Jones and ATM wholesale distributors.
Nearly every case is captured on store video footage, but few have been solved and police can’t point to any particular initiative they’ve formed to take on the string of thefts other than regular sharing of information across districts.
Because the thefts tend to occur when businesses are closed, they are classified as property crimes, which get lower priority. Slip a bank teller a note or jump behind a cash register and it’s a robbery, which by definition involves taking something with force or the threat of force. Breaking into a closed store and hauling away an ATM is burglary or destruction of property, crimes which often receive less punishment.
“We’re not protected in Baltimore City,” said Jerome Dyer, a regional manager for Money Factory ATM, which distributes ATMs across Maryland and says the problem is concentrated in Baltimore.
But thefts have also occurred recently in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties. A group was charged last year in a string of cases in Montgomery County. And in 2017, a newlywed couple stole ATMs from gas stations on the Eastern Shore and in Virginia by pulling them out with chains attached to vehicles. The husband pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in 2018 and was sentenced to more than nine years in prison.
George Sarantopoulos, chairman of the National ATM Council and owner of an ATM business in New York City, said the crimes aren’t new but that his members across the country are seeing a “pickup” in ATM thefts.
“Our business will survive, it will just get tougher,” Sarantopoulos said.
Many stores bear signs advertising their ATMs inside. Small businesses say they rely on cash machines to make sure customers can get cash to make purchases, while owners typically receive a percentage of the fees on every transaction.
ATMs can be purchased by the business owner — they cost $2,000 to $5,000 — or rented. A store owner who purchases an ATM may load it with his own money, and is credited by banks as transactions occur. Or the machines are loaded by third parties like Loomis, the armored security company. The website ConnectATM says the typical machine will dispense $6,000 to $16,000 a month, depending on customer traffic.
Though fees for users can be steep, proponents say ATMs are necessary because bank branches have been closing in minority and low-income communities, as well as small towns. A study by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition found that 6,000 bank branches closed across the country from 2008 to 2016, with the largest decline — 25% — coming in Baltimore County. The only other place with a decline of more than 18% was the Indiana county that includes Indianapolis.
Statewide, Maryland lost 14% of its bank branches during that time.
A 2017 survey by the FDIC found that the number of “unbanked” households in the United States was 8.4 million, with an additional 24.2 million underbanked, meaning that the household had a checking or savings account but also obtained financial products and services outside of the banking system.
Dyer said many residents in Baltimore use ATMs to access food stamps or other benefits, which are distributed through Electronic Benefit Transfer, or EBT, cards. “A lot of these stores, all of them in low-income areas, people have EBT — people don’t have bank accounts,” he said. “ATM is a very huge asset to the low-income areas and a huge asset to these store owners.”
Robyn Dorsey, a policy researcher with the Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition, said in the absence of bank branches, ATMs are the “least-worst alternative.” If ATMs were to disappear, she said, it would “create an opening for more predatory financial services like check cashers and pawnshops to aggressively target Baltimore neighborhoods.”
Though the police department has a unit established to investigate robberies at businesses, Jones said the department is content to have the chief of patrol’s office track trends and disseminate information to the police districts.
“We are actively working to close these cases,” Jones said.
Police said they recovered DNA and fingerprints from some of the machines, but say it hasn’t been enough to file charges and they’re continuing to seek more evidence.
The FBI, meanwhile, has not gotten involved.
Money Factory’s Dyer said his company has been installing alarms and GPS trackers in its ATMs. But he’s frustrated that customers have told him police in some places are advising businesses to simply stop having ATMs. He thinks police should be doing more to catch the thieves.
“There’s been several incidents where store owners have [closed circuit TV] — they’re watching as it’s happening, they’re calling police and police are not responding,” Dyer said. “They’re urging stores to not put ATMs in their businesses, instead of putting together a task force.”
Jones said the Baltimore department’s advice to businesses has focused on “hardening” their stores, with enhanced security or using additional measures to fasten the machines to the floor or wall.
One longtime store owner, who did not want to be identified because she said she is well known in her community and feared retribution, said ATM thefts have occurred over the years, but used to be rare. She no longer keeps an ATM on her property, both because she didn’t want to deal with the potential for damage and because the owner of the machine didn’t want to keep it there either.
“It would happen every once in a blue, blue, blue moon,” she said. “Then all of a sudden it became [more common] — it’s like a gang, like the ones who were committing those carjackings awhile ago.”
One of the only known cases with an arrest came when a group unsuccessfully tried to steal an ATM in late November by backing a van into a mini mart in the 3600 block of Edmondson Ave. A responding officer saw a group of people nearby who he wrote in charging documents matched the description of those on surveillance video. The suspects charged were ages 30, 19, 18, 14 and 14.
The van had been stolen from a workforce development nonprofit. The adult defendants are facing charges of second- and fourth-degree burglary, theft and destruction of property and have been held without bail, but they have not been charged with additional crimes. The ATM thefts have continued.
Seo, the Mount Vernon liquor store operator, said he planned to replace his stolen ATM as soon as possible.
“What should I do? This is a business. We have to do business,” Seo said.
Khaled Mozeb, 41, said thieves broke into his store, Krispy Krunchy Chicken & Deli on Broadway, earlier this year and tried to make off with the ATM inside. He said his store alarm went off and they left empty-handed, likely aware they had limited time. Police arrived quickly, he added.
“This is Fells Point,” he said with a smile.
Still, Mozeb said, police should be doing more to try to catch the perpetrators. He called the spate of burglaries “organized crime.”