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...

Scottish Daily Mail - - Countdown To Brexit D-day - by Gavin Made­ley

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.

FORTH

NEWTONHILL

CLYDEBANK

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

GRETNA

LANGHOLM

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