Some Banks Not Following Rules to Keep You Safe at ATMs

Marcia Brooks never thought it would happen to her. An ATM deposit turned into a life-threatening experience in Pompano Beach.

“They could have easily grabbed me, taken me, shot me, raped me,” said Brooks.

A gunman forced her to take $160 from the ATM. He still hasn’t been caught.

“I'll never forget the gun being pressed against my neck,” she said.

It’s something we all take for granted – getting cash from the ATM. But an NBC 6 investigation with the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting found many banks are keeping you in the dark when it comes to your safety.

Getting cash quickly – day or night – is convenient, but it can also be dangerous.

The Team 6 investigation found at least 35 felonies committed at ATMs the last two years across the state – armed robberies, shootings, even murder.

Alex Sanchez, president of the Florida Bankers Association, told us that banks are doing all they can to prevent you from becoming a victim.

“This is an important matter for our banks that they take very, very, seriously … we want to provide a safe haven for our citizens and our customers.”

The state sets minimum lighting standards for not just the ATM and the area near it, but also the parking lot. Mirrors must be on the ATM so you can see behind you and there are limits on the size of nearby plants.

In the last five years, not one of the 250 Florida chartered banks has been cited by state inspectors for violating those standards. A spokesperson for the Florida Office of Financial Regulation told Team 6 the state's 118 inspectors didn’t find a single bank outside the rules over the last five years. As for the thousands of other banks in our state, we don’t know. Federal regulators told us the inspections are confidential.

However, the engineering experts from Scientific Expert Analysis pulled out their tape measures and lighting devices calibrated the same evening – and told us the very first South Florida bank we checked, Regent Bank in central Broward, was outside some of the regulations. The firm has 40 years’ experience evaluating structures.

Ed Brill, an engineer with Scientific Expert Analysis, said the light near the ATM was measuring between 2- and 5-foot candles but the state statute require 10-foot candles.

“When we first looked at the lighting right at the ATM face we found that it met the requirements … as we moved away we found that the readings did not meet requirements,” Brill stated.

Matthew Speath, also an engineer with Scientific Expert Analysis, said the landscaping at the bank was too high. The regulations say vegetation in the area shouldn't be more than 3 feet high and must be well lit.

Speath said vegetation on the corner of the building was about 7 to 8 feet tall.

“It’s still in direct eyesight of the ATM and directly adjacent to the parking lot … a patron that was parking in one of these spaces … is potentially subjected to an individual that could be hiding,” he said.

The engineering experts told us that generally a bank falls out of compliance with the state law unintentionally because of things that happen over time like someone changes a light bulb to the incorrect wattage or doesn’t cut the vegetation.

One Orlando family knows the pain of violence at the ATM. Off-duty Central Florida policeman Alfred Gordon Sr. was killed in an ATM robbery.

“I don’t think banks always have the consumer in mind,” said Alfred Gordon, the son of Alfred Gordon Sr.

Two men are now serving life behind bars for the killing of Gordon Sr. The family’s lawyer says there was poor lighting and the mirrors were missing – the family and Bank of America reached a settlement. Gordon’s family worries about profit trumping safety.

“They are going to see their expectations for profit and bonus margins, but I think that a lot of times the consumer is the one that loses out in the end because when it comes to safety I don’t think you can take lightly and try to skimp on in any way,” said Gordon Jr.

Richard Hodak, a former FBI agent who directed security for one bank, says 50 percent of the robberies, rapes, and murders that occur at ATMs occur between 7 p.m. and midnight.

Hodak says lawmakers, police, and banks aren’t doing enough.

Hodak says, “Banks do not seem to do a good job in policing their ATMs to evaluating the risk involved in the ATMs.”

We asked the engineers to check four banks in all. At one Wells Fargo in north Broward, according to them, there was not enough light. They found dark spots on the side of the ATM and down the wall adjacent to it.

“The lighting down the side does not meet the minimum requirement – about half or less than half the requirement,” Brill said.

The engineers found no problems at two other South Florida banks. But just how many banks aren't doing what the law requires is anyone's guess. We're also in the dark about how many customers like these exist because most law enforcement agencies don't have a category tracking ATM crimes.

Wells Fargo sent us a statement that read, in part, “... while we regularly review our locations … we will review this location again ... if we find that the lighting needs to be fixed, we will do so in a timely manner.”

Regent Bank said, “… the bank believes that the landscaping around the ATM fully meets the requirements of the Florida statutes. As regards to the lighting level, the bank thanks Channel 6 for bringing to its attention the fact that the candle foot power was not as bright as it should be …”

To read more about violent crimes at ATMs, go to the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.

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