THE MAGAZINE

Robbers Can't Bank on Lax Security

By John Barham

The news is not all good, however. Mexico still operates a huge cash economy, where even large transactions are often settled in cash either to evade taxes or to sidestep burdensome regulations. This situation creates opportunities for criminals, and it exposes individuals and businesses to heightened risk.

Banks have made considerable progress in tightening security inside their branches. They have reduced the amount of cash held on site, restricted managers’ access to branch vaults, improved CCTV coverage, and increased training, says Jorge Septien, head of security at Banamex, Mexico’s second-largest bank, which is owned by Citibank.

But it is a constant battle as criminals adapt. For example, thieves began to loiter inside branches to identify people making large cash withdrawals so that they could rob them in the street or follow them home. The Mexico City Public Security Department now publishes fliers and posters warning bank clients that thieves lurk outside branches or beside ATMs.

Banks have also reacted, hiring hostesses to greet and orientate clients as they enter the branch, helping them to fill in forms or directing them to the appropriate bank officer. These hostesses are trained to determine who might be a threat and either convince them to leave or discreetly raise the alarm. 

Another challenge is the spread of ATMs, which has opened a wealth of new opportunities for criminals. A fully loaded ATM can hold more cash—more than $100,000—than most branches. And Mexico now has almost 26,000 ATMs—20 percent more than two years ago, according to the Association of Mexican Banks. Most of this growth has taken place in off-branch locations such as malls, office buildings, stores, and gas stations.

The police have increased their patrols in high-risk areas, and CCTV networks can monitor machines installed outside bank branches, but most of the growth in installations is taking place in other locations. Criminals working at night ram machines, use loaders to lift them, or simply open them up with welding equipment.

“We have done a lot to improve security at our branches, but ATMs are the vulnerable point, especially those in third-party locations or isolated areas,” says Jaime.

Banks are improving their countermeasures. They are upgrading security features of ATMs, such as equipping them with devices that spray cash with indelible dye if they detect movement, says Jaime.

Criminals are always evolving their tactics as well. Some enterprising criminals are known to have installed fake ATMs at beach resorts, stores, and malls in heavily traveled tourist spots.

These fake ATMs read and record credit card data and PIN numbers but do not release any cash. A message on the screen tells users that the network cannot reach their bank. However, their credit card details are immediately used to create new “cloned” cards.

Extortion and intimidation of bank employees by organized crime is also a permanent threat. Gangs hold the families of managers or tellers hostage and force them to open bank vaults or to hand over large amounts of cash. Septien says banks have countered this threat by holding less cash, equipping tellers with more discreet alarms, and using CCTV to monitor branches.

To help protect its branches, Citibank operates a centralized surveillance and response system from a nondescript office building in downtown Mexico City that bears no identifying signs or logos. Inside, working from a control room dominated by a huge plasma screen covering the wall, teams of security managers work day and night. They monitor cameras in the bank’s branches that are linked to their system in real time by Internet connections. In a crisis, they can coordinate responses with branch managers, Citibank security executives in Mexico City, and the police.

As soon as an event is detected at a branch, staff can use cameras or telephone connections to the affected branch to determine what has happened—an armed robbery, a hostage situation— and take necessary action, such as alerting police and advising staff.

Most alerts are false alarms, says Septien, but the system has improved response time and coordination with the police. The next step will be to extend this network to all Citibank branches in Latin America and centralize control in Mexico City.

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