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Chinks in ATM armour bared

An attempted theft at an unmanned ATM of State Bank of India (SBI) in Ranchi in the small hours of Monday underscored the absolute necessity to bolster security at these mushrooming money kiosks across the capital and elsewhere.

Police have arrested one Sehboob Alam (28) for the daring bid on the Lake Road ATM and seized a pickaxe, a sabal (an iron rod with a pointed tip), a screwdriver and a hammer. Alam’s accomplice is on the run.

According to Sohail Akhtar, the owner of the premises where the SBI’s automated teller machine is located, he heard unusual noises at the kiosk around 1.30am.

“I came by the ATM to check what was wrong. A man standing outside sprinted away as soon as he saw me. There was another inside the kiosk with tools used for digging. The machine had been dismantled. I sensed trouble and dragged down the shutter. I also screamed for help and then called police,” Akhtar recounted.

A force from Daily Market police station reached the spot quickly. “We arrested the man inside the ATM who was named as the main accused in the FIR lodged,” said thana in-charge B. Ram. A hunt is on for Alam’s aide.

The incident, which comes close on the heels of a machete attack on a banker at an ATM in Bangalore last month, exposes the vulnerability of the cash dispenser units, which are often unmanned or have a solitary sentinel in the name of security.

While Akhtar’s presence of mind saved the day for SBI, such heroism is not devoid of risk especially when the culprits are armed. On what would have happened if, instead of running away, Alam’s aide attacked him, Akhtar said: “Everything happened within seconds. I did not have time to think. But, it is actually true. They could have killed me if they wanted to.”

In Ranchi, most ATM kiosks do not have security guards because banks claim the machines are “theft-proof”. But, does that make the kiosks risk-proof?

“Not at all,” said city SP Manoj Ratan Chothe, underlining the need to beef up security at ATMs. “Soon after the Bangalore incident, we had asked all banks operating here to station guards and check functionality of CCTV cameras. Not many paid heed,” he added.

In the wake of Monday’s incident, DGM of SBI (Ranchi) Praveena Kala conceded that intensifying security was imperative. “ATMs today are equipped with theft-proof technology. Break-in is next to impossible,” she said, but did not rule out chances of people being attacked by armed criminals at unmanned kiosks.

“The ATMs directly managed by SBI are manned. Some that have been outsourced do not have guards. After today, we think security personnel must be deployed at all kiosks,” she added.

The SBI has some 100-odd ATM kiosks in the city, of which nearly 30 are outsourced. Many other banks, like PNB, too have unmanned ATMs.

Subhash Chandra Arora, AGM of PNB, admitted that only their fringe kiosks are manned, whereas the ones in the city are not. He sought refuge in an RBI guideline that asks people not to resist bank/ATM heists, risking one’s life. He also insisted that deploying security had its own flip sides.

Nevertheless, the city SP has instructed all police stations to list all unmanned ATM kiosks under their respective jurisdictions. “Lives cannot be put at risk. So, we will do our bit by sending reminders to banks on deploying guards,” he said.

Should unmanned ATM kiosks be banned?