Personal Finance

ATM Pin Reversal Myth: Fact or Fiction

atmRaise your hand if you’ve heard this one before: should a robber demand you withdraw cash from an ATM for them, you can key in your pin backwards to receive the money, while also notifying police.

It’s a story generally passed around in chain emails, something along the lines of:
“I just found out that should you ever be forced to withdraw monies from an ATM machine, you can notify the police by entering your Pin # in reverse. The machine will still give you the monies you requested, but unknown to the robber, etc, the police will be immediately dispatched to help you.”

This is generally followed by claims that police say the method isn’t widely used because most people don’t know it exists, so please pass it around, it could make the difference between life and death.

Unfortunately, it’s all a hoax.

Snopes cites the story as appearing sometime in September of 2006. There is no doubt this is all a myth, however — a report by the Federal Trade Commission published in 2010 in compliance with the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009 put this myth to rest. In it, the FTC states that “emergency-PIN technologies have never been deployed at any ATMs.” In fact, it shuts down the idea of any type of emergency PIN system, PIN reversal or otherwise, saying:

“The respondent banks reported that none of their ATMs currently have installed, or have ever had installed, an emergency-PIN system of any sort. The ATM manufacturer Diebold confirms that, to its knowledge, no ATMs have or have had an emergency-PIN system.”

Though it sounds like a helpful system in theory, the FTC has offered up several rationales for why they don’t require banks to implement an emergency PIN system. In the report, the FTC states their findings have concluded that such a system

  • may not halt or deter crimes to any significant extent
  • may in some instances increase the danger to customers who are targeted by offenders
  • may lead to some false alarms
  • may impose substantial implementation costs

Despite these objections, there have been several attempts over the years to establish such a system. First patented in 1998 by Joseph Zingher, the SafetyPIN system would enable users to do exactly what the fake story claims: police would be alerted that a crime was in progress when cardholders keyed in their pin in reverse, sending out a silent alarm. Zingher pitched his SafetyPIN to many banks ardently over many years, but found little success. He won a small victory in the form of a clause included in SB 562, a bill passed by the Illinois General Assembly in 2004, but the language of the clause made the inclusion of his SafetyPIN system entirely optional.

Several other similar bills were introduced in other states, but did not pass. In 2004, the Kansas state senate sent a bill to its Financial Institutions and Insurance Committee that would require ATMs in the state to be programmed to allow for the keying in of a reversed PIN. The bill died in committee. In 2006, the Georgia State Assembly was pressed to pass a bill requiring banks to create and employ ATM panic codes at the behest of Georgia resident Michael Boyd. Boyd’s wife, Kimberly, was killed in an incident wherein at one point she was held at gunpoint while she withdrew cash from an ATM for her captor. A bill that would have accomplished this had been brought to the Georgia Senate in 2005, but nothing came of it.

So, in short, the technology exists, but has never been implemented. There’s a variety of reasons behind this, but the most prolific and persuasive is that the banks simply don’t want the technology. Either way, it’s vital that this information not be wrongly passed around, as it could cost someone their life.


One Comment

  1. Joe Zingher says:

    p.s. Although instructed by the statute to consult with law enforcement experts, the Federal Trade Commission researcher did not. That’s why there is no analysis of cost or effectiveness. Just a review of trade journals. The fact that the researcher failed to follow the law in drafting the report should tell you a lot right there.

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