10News Investigates Dangers Of ATM Use

Many people use automated teller machines as their primary form of banking, with some never even stepping inside an actual bank to handle transactions.

But which ATMs are dangerous and which ones are safe? 10News investigators learned that there is no way for you to really know.

The ease of access to money could make you an easy target.

ATMs dispense cash 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It is a convenience for customers and criminals.

Lt. Mike Hurley of the San Diego Police Department's Economic Crimes Unit said, "You don't want to be a victim of a robbery because they know you're going to be walking away having money in your pocket."

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, ATM robbers are typically young men who work alone at night, using some sort of weapon. The robbers target lone victims right after a withdrawal, with an average loss between $100 and $200. The DOJ said 15 percent of all victims are injured or killed.

"Gretchen was a very loving and warm-hearted person. She was intelligent and had a lot of ambition," said former Vista city attorney Wayne Dernetz.

Dernetz lost Gretchen Overton Dernetz, his wife of only two weeks, to a violent ATM robber.

"It took my breath away," said Dernetz.

Gretchen had gone to a Wells Fargo bank in Palo Alto, Calif., alone and in the evening. She had parked her car in a back lot and was attacked after she walked back to her car from the ATM.

"Another eyewitness reported seeing Gretchen jump out of the car yelling, 'I've been stabbed' or 'He stabbed me,' something to that affect, and she collapsed," said Dernetz.

Tyrone Hamel, who police said attacked Gretchen, was arrested 17 years after the crime when a cold case unit linked him to the crime by DNA from hair follicles left in a baseball cap. A trial is set for February.

"The public needs to know it's like baiting a trap for an assailant," said Dernetz. "People need to be very wary and very careful when using ATMs."

The California Banking Industry asserts that the odds of becoming an ATM robbery victim are about the same as winning the California lottery. Its most recent survey, from 1995, said there is one crime for every 2.5 million ATM transactions.

According to 10News' I-Team, the Federal Bureau of Investigations, local police and the DOJ are not counting. The I-Team said banks do not release which ATMs are hit most often.

For example, there was no official record indicating that an ATM located on College Avenue and El Cajon Boulevard was targeted by robbers twice in one week last year.

Kevin LaChapelle of the Special Investigations Agency said, ""The banks may not want to draw attention to robberies at ATMs for fear people wont want to go to ATMs anymore. ATMs are profitable."

LaChapelle said ATM users should be cautious, but found that most are not.

10News asked LaChapelle to observe how customers handle themselves at ATMs. The following are some of his comments about users he viewed.

"His eyes are focused on the ATM; he's not really concerned with what's going on around him."

"She's walking up, not paying attention to what's around her."

"If she were putting her ATM pin, I could watch that."

One after another, ATM customers were making themselves potential easy targets of a crime of convenience.

LaChappelle said, "The second person, instead of looking at ATMs, should be looking out for the person next to them."

10News asked the San Diego Police Department for two crime reports related to ATM thefts. 10News was told that releasing them for "researching of a news story" was not in the public's interest.

Through the California Open Records Act, 10News is requesting street robbery reports in San Diego for the last 2 years and will determine which ATMs are the most dangerous.

From the few surveys that have been done, the DOJ said ATM thefts tend to be higher where the street drug trade is busiest.

10News will update this story once information from local police reports is sorted and compiled.

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