Terrifying rise of the cash machin RAIDERS
Explosives. Farm machinery. Even forklifts. Crooks are taking ever-greater risks to steal ATMs – and putting the public in danger...
THE sudden, deafening bang of splintering wood and shattering brick rudely awakened the residents of Forth in Lanarkshire from their early morning slumbers.
Throwing open their curtains, their blearyeyed confusion would not have been helped by the bizarre sight of a giant commercial digger parked haphazardly in the middle of the road outside the local newsagent.
Their horrified gaze would turn to the remnants of the shop front, strewn about the huge wheels of the abandoned vehicle like the contents of an upturned litter bin. Was this the result of a terrible accident or the work of an improbable drunk driver?
Only with the dawning realisation of what used to occupy the ugly hole now defacing the premises did the mystery of what had just happened become clear. Where once sat a cash machine ready to dispense banknotes at all hours of the day and night, there was nothing but fresh air. The machine, along with its contents, had vanished into the night along with the gang of ruthless thieves responsible for this audacious – and worryingly common – heist.
Detectives say the balaclava-clad, four-strong gang left the stolen Manitou digger and made off in a silver Kia Sorrento following the raid on the USave store on Main Street around 4.10am on Friday, October 12. The car, which had been modified to fit the stolen ATM, and its contents – believed to be a five-figure sum – was later recovered nearby.
Several weeks have passed – but, so far, no arrests have been made. Meanwhile, a business lies in tatters, a badly damaged building requires costly repairs and the good folk of Forth – temporarily, at least – lost their local access to cash.
Such brazen attacks may seem more suited to the lawless America of Butch Cassidy and his infamous Hole In The Wall Gang, but official estimates suggest up to 1,000 such raids on automated teller machines (ATMs) are taking place across the UK every year.
HOLLYWOOD may have romanticised the long-dead outlaws of the Wild West – but romantic is hardly an appropriate description for the menace of Scotland’s modern-day ‘hole-in-the-wall’ gangs. They are hard-nosed, shameless and show scant regard for the victims who must pick up the pieces of their trail of devastation.
Increasingly, they are employing potentially deadly means to obtain money from ATMs, which are becoming better protected from assault.
Two years ago, a three-man gang from Liverpool was jailed for a total of 36 years for stealing £130,000 by raiding a series of cash machines in Aberdeenshire, using what the trial judge described as ‘highly dangerous’ methods.
The attacks began in August 2013, when career criminals Robin Vaughan, Joseph McHale and Kevin Schruyers, started blowing up ATMs using a highly potent mixture of oxygen and acetylene gas – normally used for welding. They drove in different cars, with regularly changing number plates.
After targeting ATMs in Turriff, Ellon, Stonehaven and Aberdeen, their raids were brought to an end when a police investigation led to Liverpool, where Scottish banknotes with the edges cut off to remove signs of red security dye had started to circulate.
Such attacks are far from isolated, yet most of these gangs use a disturbingly similar modus operandi, leading to concerns that offenders are being schooled in the technique by older ‘lags’ while in prison. While the basic method remains unchanged, the model has been refined over time.
Ten years ago, ram raiders used a forklift truck to try to tear an ATM from a shop wall in the Lanarkshire village of Cleland. At the time, shop manager Nasar Aslam, 37, said: ‘I couldn’t believe he used the truck to smash straight through the wall. This has never happened to the shop before, it’s normally a relatively safe area. Everything is a mess. I’m still in shock.’
It took four years to bring Richard McGrath, the only gang member ever arrested, to trial. In 2012, the High Court in Glasgow heard the would-be robbers made no attempt to keep the noise down as they repeatedly battered the forklift truck into the brick wall to try to free the machine.
Neighbours awakened around 2.15am by the commotion saw the yellow flashing lights on top of the stolen forklift had been activated.
While the rest of the gang fled when disturbed by police, McGrath was caught hiding in a garden. He pleaded guilty to repeatedly driving a forklift into a wall on November 4, 2008, and attempting to steal a cash machine and £15,880.
Jailing McGrath for six and a half years, judge Lady Stacey told him his bid to steal an ATM was a ‘strange attempt with a forklift truck’.
These days, her Ladyship would be unlikely to regard the use of such vehicles as ‘strange’, since the use of heavy machinery is a key component of the ATM theft template.
First, the gang will steal the vehicles it needs for the raid – a digger, tractor, telehandler or similar heavy commercial vehicle often taken from farms or industrial estates, a four-wheel drive and a getaway car.
They will invariably target cashpoints in out-of-the-way or rural towns. Successful ‘hits’ always take place in the early hours – to minimise the risk of being disturbed – and last barely a few minutes.
The digger is used to cause maximum structural damage to the building housing the ATM, before chains are attached for a 4x4 to haul it from its moorings and drag it away to a point beyond the scrutiny of CCTV cameras where they can smash open the machine and take tens of thousands of pounds. Recently, such desperados have thought nothing of pumping ATMs full of gas before detonating it using wires linked to a car battery. The blast can scatter flying debris over a wide area, endangering the lives of anyone who may be nearby.
But a newly filled ATM can hold upwards of £100,000, so these are acceptable risks for criminals hoping to hit the jackpot. Police say the strength of some blasts is comparable to ‘a bomb going off’.
In November 2016, residents of Langholm, Dumfriesshire, were woken by an explosion at 1.40am and reported seeing a trail of notes from the RBS cash machine.
Sarah Cutteridge, 52, who lives above the branch, said: ‘The whole building shook. Police seem to think the ATM had been filled with gas.’
This September, a telehandler was abandoned amid the wreck-
age at a Co-op store in Gretna, Dumfriesshire, where the ATM was found under a pile of rubble. A Co-op worker said: ‘You never think anything like this is going to happen here in Gretna. We’re famous for weddings but not this. We’re all devastated.’
A 25-year-old man has since been arrested and charged.
When Scottish inventor John Shepherd-Barron first dreamed up the ATM more than 50 years ago, he imagined a money machine that could operate like a chocolate dispenser. He probably did not bank on giving crooks such a taste for danger.
Quite apart from the devastation at the scene of the theft, the ramifications of such crimes reach far out into the community, which often faces losing its only ATM for miles around – at best, temporarily; at worst, permanently. Then there are the owners of the stolen vehicles and any residents living above the ATM, who face being evacuated for weeks or even months while building control officers wait to deem their building safe for habitation again. Countryside insurer NFU Mutual says rural crime cost the Scottish economy £1.5million last year and reported farmers were being forced to build ‘medieval fortifications’, including defensive ditches, to protect their livelihoods from organised criminal gangs. Tim Price, rural crime specialist for NFU Mutual, said that although Scotland bucked the UK trend, with rates of rural crime falling by almost 4 per cent compared to 2016, the nature of it was changing. He added: ‘In the last year we have seen stolen loaders used to smash into village shops to steal cash machines. ‘As well as causing huge structural damage, these raids often lead to the shop owners deciding not to replace the ATM to avoid a future attack. This leaves rural communities already facing the closure of bank branches with a further loss of services.’
In June, consumer group Which? warned that 300 cash machines a month were being withdrawn, largely because of the rise of electronic banking – but criminal attacks are not helping. From a high of 70,000 ATMs in the UK, numbers have fallen to 65,000 – including 5,200 in Scotland.
SUGGESTIONS that more might close has prompted debate at Holyrood and Westminster. Conservative MSP Dean Lockhart told the Scottish parliament there was strong backing for retaining ATMs north of the Border.
But James Cleverly, deputy chairman of the UK Tory Party, caused a stir by suggesting on social media that the future of external ATMs ‘must surely be limited’ amid the rise of card payments.
Erik Cramb of the Dundee Pensioners Forum said: ‘He must be living in a parallel universe. For the vast majority, especially pensioners, I would say cash machines are vital.’
Age Scotland head of policy Adam Stachura urged politicians ‘to take better stock of the needs of their constituents before making such remarks’.
All of which merely adds to the security headache as police and ATM operators struggle to stay one step ahead of the gangs. While industry experts insist the vast majority of attacks end in failure, Police Scotland this week admitted in response to a freedom of information request that it did not hold figures for the number of ATM raids annually.
Cardtronics – the world’s largest independent ATM operator, which operates 20,000 of the UK’s cash machines – is sufficiently concerned to be significantly ramping up its security programmes.
International managing director Marc Terry said: ‘These attacks on ATMs are a crime against the community. Not only are they dangerous but they deprive communities of vital access to their cash.
‘We operate over 200,000 ATMs worldwide and the recent spike in UK ATM attacks is truly alarming and far worse than our experience in other countries.’
What is also clear is how terrifyingly inventive the criminals are becoming in pursuit of their goal. In April last year, seven members of a Merseyside gang received sentences ranging from nine to 19 years for a year-long campaign that netted them £611,000.
A court heard the raiders used stolen high-performance cars during the raids, which they transported around the country inside an HGV lorry in a plot reminiscent of The Italian Job.
They targeted 13 cash machines, blowing some up with gas and dragging others out of buildings.
The raids took place in Carnoustie, Angus; Newtonhill, Kincardineshire; Kingswells, Aberdeen; and Perth, as well as south of the Border.
Police couldn’t work out how they were able to travel to and from their Liverpool base, until the owner of the stolen lorry spotted it by chance in a yard and raised the alarm. When police looked inside, they were amazed to see it had been converted into a mobile hideaway, complete with hammocks.
The unsuspecting criminals, who also stole motorhomes to transport equipment around the country, carried on their attacks, unaware they were being tracked.
They were caught after popping into a McDonald’s for breakfast seven miles from their final heist at a Co-op in Carnoustie.
AN off-duty police officer realised their white Mercedes was the same vehicle her colleagues had been searching for overnight. Armed police swooped and shot out the tyres of the getaway car after it rammed a police car in a desperate bid to escape.
Jailing the gang, judge Alan Conrad told them they had ‘total contempt for the law, law enforcement authorities and the well-being of ordinary members of society’.
The dangerous nature of such attacks was brought home in January, when a 51-year-old man was critically injured after an explosion at a cash machine in Clydebank, Dunbartonshire. He was taken to hospital, where he remains. A 49year-old man was arrested in connection with the blast.
As the attacks continue, there is some hope as retailers fight back. The Co-op, which is committed to free ATMs as an ‘essential service’ and has found itself a regular target, has been at the forefront of these efforts. It is working with forensic technology firm SmartWater to spray an invisible traceable gel on anyone who tries to break into one of its cash machines. A spot of the gel, which stays on skin and clothes for five years and can be seen under UV light, can link offenders to a specific heist.
A pilot scheme in 2016 resulted in a more than 90 per cent reduction in ATM crime.
A Co-op spokesman said crime prevention remained a ‘top priority’, adding: ‘As a community retailer, our ambition is for stores to be at the heart of local life, connecting communities and bringing people together.’
Fine words, but it remains to be seen if they are enough to stop hole-in-the-wall gangs ripping the heart out of our communities.
Aftermath: A forensics officer at the scene of the ATM raid in Gretna in September
Ripping the heart out of communities: Raiders using diggers, dumpers, forklifts and telehandlers have hit ATMs in Lanarkshire, Dunbartonshire, Aberdeenshire, Dumfriesshire and Fife in recent times KIRKCALDY