/ 26 January 2007

Twenty-three ATMs blasted in January

The new year has seen a massive upsurge in criminal attempts to extract money from ATMs using explosives, with a startling 23 attacks in January.

Eighty-nine ATMs have been attacked by criminals since 2005, according to the South African Banking Risk Information Centre (Sabric).

But most of the blasts are unsuccessful, say police. National spokesperson for the South African Police Service Ronnie Naidoo told the Mail & Guardian: ‘The explosives are obviously not strong enough, and most of the time the criminals can’t even use the money because it gets burnt in the blast. But they still keep trying.”

On Thursday, two cash machines — one in Meyerton, south of Johannesburg, and one in Orlando, Soweto — were targeted.

In the Meyerton incident, police said a security guard was seriously injured in an explosion when he opened a bag left behind by the criminals. He is in hospital a serious but stable condition.

Sabric’s general manager for crime risk information, Ian van Vuuren, blamed economic desperation, criminal ingenuity and the perception that ATMS are a soft target. ‘They’re the flavour of the month because there’s this perception that they’re easy to rob,” he said.

Using commercial explosives — much of it thought to be from the mines — gangs target ATM machines in quiet, poor communities because ‘there is a lot less movement in those areas and it leaves the criminals undisturbed,” said Van Vuuren.

Cash machines in rural areas do not have CCTV cameras attached to them, which also makes them tempting targets.

The East Rand and West Rand of Gauteng, the Northern Province, Northern Pretoria and the Eastern Cape have been hardest hit in the onslaught. In some cases, criminals have used heavy vehicles to batter open machines.

Naidoo said ATM blasts are ‘a new thing” for the police. ‘At first it was very difficult, but we’ve made over 20 arrests.” Most of those arrested were South African citizens, and one man was allegedly responsible for blowing up 10 ATMs in the Western and Eastern Cape.

‘We’ve arrested people in Potchefstroom, Soweto, the Eastern Cape and the Northern Province,” Naidoo said.

According to media reports, those arrested include an SABC employee — although the SABC has denied this. The man was allegedly found, with four other people, in possession of explosives in January.

Naidoo would not divulge the exact methods used by the criminals, saying it would compromise the investigation and encourage copycats.

Van Vuuren said it was time ‘someone from the banks stepped up to the plate” in making sure that ATMs across the country were protected

ATM blasts are not unique to South Africa. In European countries such as Sweden and The Netherlands, criminals inject compressed gas into machines to blow them open. In Japan, a gang stole an entire ATM using excavating equipment.