Are ATM blasts fizzling out?

Four automated teller machines (ATMs) were blown up in separate incidents around the country in the past week.

The first blast was on Friday morning in Port Elizabeth, and the other three in the early hours of Monday morning in North West province, in Spruitview in Gauteng, and in Ga-Rankuwa at the Medunsa medical university campus.

The South African Police Service (SAPS) estimates that more than 200 ATMs have been bombed since January this year, with national police spokesperson Ronnie Naidoo saying the attacks now span all provinces, no longer being confined to just Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal.

But Ian van Vuuren, general manager for crime-risk information at the South African Banking Risk Information Centre (Sabric), is confident there has been a decline in such incidents recently, and that the downward trend will continue.

“The level of victimisation [by criminals] in South Africa remains high. With ATM blasts, there has been quite a tremendous increase this year, as last year,” Van Vuuren says.
“But there have been successes in the past weeks with a number of arrests and this will have an impact on trends; we will see it levelling off.”

Sabric, an organisation created five years ago by South Africa’s four major banks, liaises with bodies such as the SAPS to fight bank-related crimes. ATM blasts are not limited to South Africa; banks in Europe are similarly affected.

Arrests

Van Vuuren agrees that it still has to be determined whether the downward trends are long-term, but last week the police were also optimistic after the arrest of six men linked to four ATM blasts in North West province earlier in July.

The South African Press Association (Sapa) reported that money and explosives were found at the time of the arrest. It also reported that two more people were arrested on July 11 in Pietermaritzburg for blowing up an ATM, while two accomplices were killed in a pre-arrest shoot-out. Four men were arrested in Durban for an explosion in Greenwood Park.

The investigations could lead to further arrests and links to other crimes, and police believe they have “struck a blow” against ATM bombers in the country. The SAPS’s Naidoo told the Mail & Guardian Online there have already been more than 40 arrests made this year.

“People think they can get easy money, but it’s pointless because it is usually unsuccessful,” Naidoo says. Van Vuuren agrees, saying that in only half the incidents do the thieves successfully retrieve any money.

“But it costs the banks a tremendous amount of money to repair and replace infrastructure,” he says, adding that it also poses a danger to those in the vicinity of the blast.

“While these criminals rarely make off with any cash, physical loss due to the damage to ATM machines and infrastructure can often run into hundreds of thousands of rands,” Standard Bank spokesperson Ross Linstrom says. One ATM machine can cost between R150 000 and R300 000.

Van Vuuren says banks have been escalating security measures over the past few months, with some of those measures still in the process of being rolled out.

However, he would not talk about the specifics, saying it would “compromise” bank security and possibly give criminals a “foot in the door”. Linstrom would not divulge any information, also for security reasons.

Explosives

Van Vuuren says a multidisciplined approach is needed to ensure the attacks come to an end. “More must be done about apprehending offenders, we must ensure banks harden their facilities, and we must find a way to close down the source of the explosives.”

Explosives used in ATM blasts are typically used in underground mining operations, Van Vuuren says. They are commercially available, according to the South African Chamber of Mines.

Dick Kruger, assistant adviser of techno-economics at the Chamber of Mines, says the explosives are not only used in mining operations, but also for tunnelling and making roads. There are very few explosives specific to the mining industry.

The explosives differ depending on the size and extent of the blast. Consisting of ammonium nitrate, some are cartridge explosives while others are gel in a cartridge or gelicmite explosives. They can be detonated electrically through a fuse.

According to Kruger, there are certain requirements for those wanting to purchase explosives. “You have to prove that you have a legitimate need for it, like a mining operation or for building a tunnel, and you have to have magazines [protective structures] to keep the explosives in, and persons with the necessary qualifications to handle the explosives; people with blasting certificates,” he says. “If you have all of these, then you can buy it.”

The Mine Health and Safety Act provides guidelines and safeguards for selling and using explosives. There are also logging processes to keep track of all explosives. “There is a magazine master who issues explosives to the miming operators. Even old and damaged explosives have to be destroyed in a prescribed process,” he says.

Kruger says he has not received any reports about explosives being stolen from any mine. “We depend on people to do their jobs,” he says, but adds: “It’s difficult for me to judge from my office in Johannesburg … I can’t say what could go wrong.”

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