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The Eternal Temptation of the ATM Heist

There’s just something about that squat box of cash that makes you want to bust it open. But how easy is it, really?

“That is our future behind us, baby! That is our future behind us!” shouts Anthony Anderson’s J.D. as he drags an ATM on a chain behind his pickup truck in the opening credits of the classic Barbershop

Well, technically, it was his cousin Ricky’s pickup truck that J.D. was just borrowing to commit the robbery. Either way, the pickup truck is a pretty key ingredient in most ATM robberies, both in films and TV and IRL, like this Alabama ATM robbery:

And this Louisiana one:

And this one in British Columbia:

The pickup truck provides the perfect battering ram for an ATM robbery, as well as a getaway vehicle, so it’s no wonder that it’s been used so often to pull off the appealing smash-and-grab. Unlike the overly-complicated heists that one may see in a film like Ocean’s 11, the ATM heist is much simpler: It doesn’t require blueprints or vast knowledge of Nevada gaming laws or an unrealistically attractive group of fast-talking ne’er-do-wells. Oftentimes, all you need is that pickup truck and some good old-fashioned American stick-to-itiveness to get the job done.

It’s this beautiful simplicity that’s the allure of the ATM heist: If honest-looking gents like these can pull one off, then just about anyone can do it. It usually starts with a pickup truck, that much should be clear by now — that truck is utilized to gain entry into the store that houses the ATM. Now, bashing into the store and wrecking it to pieces isn’t required with an ATM heist, as many thieves opt for a more elegant approach, but this mass destruction does provide a quick way to gain entry, allowing for a job to be pulled off before any authorities arrive. It’s also fun to break shit, obviously. 

Anyway, once the heisters have gained entry — violently or otherwise — the ATM is usually loaded into the bed of the truck, so as not to attract the attention that would inevitably come with a giant ATM sparking behind you on a chain like in Barbershop

Loading it into the truck isn’t all that difficult either, as “most ATMs in the US are 200 to 300 pounds,” explains Nancy Lewandrowksi, the director of marketing for Triton Systems, an ATM manufacturer in Mississippi. Though some ATMs might weigh more for security purposes — Lewandrowksi says some can weigh up to 1,000 pounds — most can be lifted by two industrious, hard-working fellows.

Sometimes even just one guy can do the trick if he really applies himself. 

Actually ripping open an ATM can vary in difficulty. Spoiler Alert: In Barbershop, the guys never manage to get the thing open, despite repeated attempts with a variety of tools. So while a crowbar alone isn’t usually enough…

A crowbar plus a sledgehammer did the job just fine here:

Same for a small electric saw and sledgehammer:

And for this one, an electric saw, hammer and possibly needle-nose pliers were enough for this adorable father-and-son team to gain access:

It’s also been done with a chainsaw, and for some ATMs, a laptop can be used along with something called an “oscilloscope.” As the Observer explained, an oscilloscope is a device that “measures the voltage of the components being touched via simple metal pins which are inserted into a port on the lock’s side of an ATM” — with this information, hackers can then attain the combination to open some ATMs. Then there’s a technique called “forking,” which involves jamming a fork-shaped electronic device into the money slot, which then scrambles the machine and causes it to shoot out money.

As for the haul, the amount that you’ll find in an ATM can vary wildly. While TIME reported that they can house as much as $200,000, they rarely hold that much. “In off hours, most machines contain less than $10,000. Still, news of a number of recent big scores [in] ATM thefts have probably only made the crime more popular,” wrote TIME’s Stephen Gandel in a 2010 piece titled “ATM Crime: More and More Machines Get Withdrawn,” which highlighted ATM machine theft being on the rise during the recession. He then went on to describe a case in Philadelphia where ATM robbers made off with $96,000, and a pair of Dallas robberies that totaled over $200,000. 

Additionally, unlike a bank heist, an ATM’s bills are largely untraceable, as Lewandrowski shares, “For the most part, bills loaded into an ATM aren’t sequential. The ATMs aren’t designed to read the note, only to monitor the number of notes dispensed, and to ensure double notes aren’t dispensed at the same time.” In other words, once you’ve ripped open an ATM and exposed its delicious candy center, that cash most likely can’t really be traced back to that particular robbery. 

But wait! Before you grab your electric saw and hop in your pickup truck, there are some things you should know, the first of which being that ATM robberies don’t always go as planned. After all, Anthony Anderson went to jail at the end of Barbershop, and, as noted earlier, he never even got that machine open. In Breaking Bad, a pair of meth heads that steal an ATM do eventually get it open, but only after one of them gets their head crushed by the machine:

Or perhaps the worst-case scenario (besides being busted by Spider-Man), in the movie Crawl, a trio of ATM robbers end up as alligator food, which seems unlikely during an ATM robbery, but certainly not impossible: 

As far as real-life examples go, sometimes it’s hard to predict just how strong ATMs are. In this case, a stick of dynamite wasn’t even enough to access the cash:

And here, an ATM proved to be too robust for a van (guess they should have opted for a pickup truck):

You’ve also got to be sure your cable is actually attached to the ATM:

And you’ve got to be really sure that your getaway driver doesn’t chicken out. That part’s really important:

There’s also a wide variety of security measure put into place to protect ATMs, and while all ATMs are different and it’s hard to tell what security measures each employs, there are a few things that you could run into. For one, many ATMs are now bolted to the floor, and they often have heavy-duty pick-resistant locks. For an ATM secured to a wall, Lewandrowksi says that they definitely wouldn’t be a thief’s first choice, as they’re not only bolted, but secured pretty well into that wall. Additionally, some floor-bolted ones even have a device known as a “Raminator,” which is a shock-absorbing plate that prevents an ATM from getting mown down by a car, which has proven to be far more effective than simply bolting a machine to the ground.

There are also cameras in many ATMs and obviously businesses often have cameras as well, which of course can lead the cops to you if you don’t cover your tracks completely. Not only that, but the machine itself may be narcing on you as you’re breaking into it, as Lewandrowski says, “Many ATMs can be tied into the location’s alarm system with door sensors and switches. There are also seismic and thermal sensors that can be mounted inside ATMs to detect vibration or heat. In this manner, they can call out to the monitoring alarm company if being attacked.”

For those nerdy high-tech robbers out there, there are a wide variety of technological security features that factor into ATM software, such as firewalls, secure networking and malware protection. Additionally, Lewandrowski explains, “Most ATM owners take the necessary precautions to limit the potential for attacks on their ATMs, like pulling the cash from the ATM each night and leaving the door open so would-be thieves will see there is nothing inside.” For all of these reasons, Lewandroski adds, “ATM robberies are probably not as common as one might think, especially with regards to physical attacks.” 

Still, as long as it creates good material for YouTube videos and movie plotlines, the allure of that giant box full of cash will likely stick around for as long we still use cash as a society. After all, an ATM theft is the kind of stuff dreams are made of.