Wednesday, December 21, 2005


now GROOVING to: Goa Trance, Volume 2, 2005

[This post should bear the title " 'Standing outside, Looking in' or 'Thoughts on how to rob an ATM' "]

Despatched a few days ago to mop up some pending work, I was reminiscing about the incredible relief if felt, when my banking practices shifting from visiting a branch, to interacting with ATM's. Strangely, for about three years (during college? <-- extremely unfocussed and confused times), nearly every encounter with the bank branch's employees ended in me getting a scolding, from the cashier, clerk or manager. Here's a brief sample of what they used to say:
  • "Why didn't you write the date?"
  • "The date you've written is wrong."
  • "This signature doesn't match with our records."
  • "if it doesn't match our records, how can we confirm that you are you?"
  • "No, don't use that form"
  • "It says right there on the form what you need to fill out."
  • "Haven't you ever been to a bank before?" (translation: didn't your parents teach you anything?" (this was the worst.)
I guess banks were a big black hole - not only would they suck me in, but also drain any ability to concentrate, think, and coordinate. But sometimes, these people really made me wonder. (Apart from (about) what I was or was not taught) how it was that someone couldn't take a minute to calmly explain "the needful"? A few patient and gentle words would've really helped.

ATMs, in this way, are a bit like that shaving-blade ad from 1992 ("no jhanjhat, sutaa sutt") for me. Easy and convenient, and in my case, fast too, since there's an alternate location within two minutes of the primary source, and that helps in avoiding lines.

(Isn't it strange that India might be the only place where, magically, lines form even at ATMs? I wouldn't know, as what I know isn't 'India', just a miniscule swath which can be called by that name.)

Fast, easy and convenient. Until this evening.

To cut a long story short, I was unsure of how much I'd keyed in for withdrawal, and began a count. The seconds that procedure took up were also the ones during which the machine expected to be excised of the card. Unaware of this machine's peculiarities (I was operating mum's card - given by a different bank - not my own) and busy with counting, something suddenly felt amiss.

Ever had that moment when you feel you've deleted an entire partition on your hard disk by mistake? That's what this one felt like. Blood rushed into the head and made my ears burn when I realized that the card had been swallowed by the machine.

A newspaper article a few months ago warned of a trick whereby a crook stuck some cello-tape into the machine using his own card in such a way that the next user's card was adhesived. The scam goes like this: pretending to be a good samaritan, the crook approaches the person whose card has gone missing, and volunteers assistance. Whatever the exact methodology, the expected outcome was social-engineering the victim into revealing their secret code, and, later, retrieving the victim's card. I know, these details are scanty, not because I want to prevent crimes from being committed, but due to the feeble set of memories I'm drawing on.

First thoughts when the card refused to manifest itself... Maybe the person who used the machine before me, a woman who said a very cheery thank-you as she left (thankful, maybe/hopefully, for not having to spend a few minutes in the cold while I used the machine) was pulling the cello-tape stunt. Remembering that she was accompanied by an eight year old dispelled this moment of paranoia.

Panicky and aggravated, and fortunate that the (physical bank) branch just a few steps away, I went and spoke with Bank Manager saheb, who said go speak with a certain Mr. J. Now this guy was obviously more interested in chatting up a female colleague, and gave the formulaic "Sorry, Come tomorrow" (i.e. fuck off). And "you must've been counting your mo and not paying attention to the machine! You are supposed to take the card out as soon as it is ejected!"

This crap continued until I lied and told that Bank Manager saheb said he had the keys for the machine and would help retrieve the card. The "let me see" was followed by a minute of papers being handled noisily. When the key was found, the aforementioned female colleague enquired about the cardholder's name (my mum) and gave a "
What do you people think? How can we do this?"

Quite a few thoughts trickled into my mind as I watched her retrieve the missing card. Only, this wasn't the kind of idle dreaming or cloud talk that afflicts people after watching action movies.. This was, well, the sprouting of an idea...

How easy would it be (or would it?) to, well, rob the ATM in a situation like this?

Here's a list of the requirements I made.
  • Social engineering skills, for convincing them into helping the inconvenienced customer.
  • A generic and trustworthy appearance (but doesn't that come under bullet #1?)
  • Lookouts, when you surprise the lady who's opened the machine.
  • Mode of getaway, err.. to get away.
Sounds simple, doesn't it?

What's interesting is that each item seems to contain within itself the seeds of its own destruction too (or maybe it comes out that way because of how I'm writing this post. ;-)

1. Social engineering skills - they always help. But the fact that this approach has been chosen leads one straight to two very big hurdles.

2. i.e. while the time chosen isn't when the ATM is being refilled (as that period is normally policed by atleast two to three gut busting ex-servicemen who carry double barrel shotguns), social engineering means atleast three to four people are encountered, all of whom will remember something about you. So unless you can wipe people's memories and the video-recordings from the hidden camera inside the ATM room, there's a big problem. Or become invisible, like Bond's Aston Martin. Or something.

3. Lookouts who take care of business, while you're taking care of business. But then, doesn't the very fact that people (who want to use the ATM) might have to distracted, lied to, or turned away while you get past the lady with the key and the mounds of cash, mean a set of problems that rule out this whole approach?

4. Getting away... Doesn't Jay Leno always say his favourite criminals are the stupid ones? One of their type was arrested recently, and it came in the news. Seems he didn't realize was that all the police did was to follow his footsteps to his home - he had left prints left in the snow.

Let's concoct a similar stupid crook scenario: the ATM I'm talking about is located in a busy market. The time: evening. So, what's worse than being stuck in a traffic jam? Getting stuck, after "pulling a job", and getting caught.

[Insert obligatory public relations / child safety note here (which should've been scrolling across your screen, like on tv.]



Blogger Hyde said...

Gilette Readyshaver, I think, that had that line.

1:48 AM  
Blogger dematerialized said...

isn't it interesting how so many ads (not that the pattern was begun by gilette readyshaver) go for the theme of: 1) conservative, cautious father, 2) speed obsessed, "out with the old, in with the new" SON, 3) father sticking to old and trusted, 4) son 'educating' him / making him aware of, well, how things aren't the same anymore...

as much as anything, the positioning of this exchange as one that takes place between a father and a son (and not another family combo) is interesting too...

9:26 PM  

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