As fraud abounds, design students craft safer ATMs

The project intends to create ATMs that are more resistant to fraud and safer for customers

Going to an ATM can be an unnerving, vulnerable experience: You're faced against a wall, taking out cash with little visibility as to whom is watching you.

Fraudsters have capitalized on this vulnerability, spying on people close and far away to record their four-digit PINs and inventing clever ways to capture payment cards or record details from the cards' magnetic strips, which contain account information.

But a dozen product-design students at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design have come up with innovative ways to make ATMs feel safer. Their projects were unveiled on Thursday as part of the Design Against ATM Crime exhibition at the college in the Holborn area of central London, ironically an ATM fraud hot spot.

The project was done in partnership with NCR, a maker of ATM machines; the Dedicated Cheque and Plastic Crime Unit (DCPCU), which investigates banking fraud; LINK, the U.K. electronic cash machine network; and RBS bank.

In 2009, U.K. financial institutions lost some £80.9 million (US$133 million) due to cloned cards, down from £169.8 million in 2008, according to the U.K. Cards Association and Financial Fraud Action U.K.

Cloned cards are made by "skimming" the magnetic strip from a payment card, which is usually accomplished by attaching a device to an ATM machine by the card slot. The account information is then encoded onto another blank card. Fraudulent withdrawals are then possible if the criminal has the person's PIN.

Olesja Shevchenko, a student from Estonia who is graduating this year with a degree in product design, created an ATM safety system using directional sound technology called Audio Spotlight, which focuses sounds in specific areas.

The system is designed to thwart so-called shoulder surfing, when a criminal is surreptitiously trying to watch a person enter their PIN. The Audio Spotlight speakers, which are used in some museums, are placed in the ceiling near the ATM. A person who is queueing properly will hear birds singing, but if they drift too close to the person using the ATM, they hear the sound of a buzzing mosquito, which can intensify if they move too close.

Shevchenko said she intended to make the system have a positive reward system. "I'm always looking to make it more fun for people rather than signs and warnings. Sometimes it's more about what you do right."

She wasn't able to make a full mock-up of the system, however: Just one of the speakers can cost £1,200, so the design remains on paper for now.

Satoru Kuskabe of Japan has drummed up interest in his omnidirectional mirror system from Westminster Council, one of the major districts in central London. Kuskabe, who is also graduating this year with a product design degree, created two semi-circular chromed mirrors that are installed on both sides of the bottom of an ATM.

To come up with the idea, he tried to shoulder surf his friends as they were using an ATM to see if he could spy their PINs. "You need to be a real criminal in order to understand surveillance," he said.

When using an ATM, a person can look down and see the movements of someone approaching or lurking. Kuskabe initially experimented with a large convex mirror below a machine, even going so far as to install one on a regular cash machine without permission to see how it would work.

During that stage, he had attached curved mirrors on the end of the larger mirror, but in tests, users found the semi-circular mirrors were enough. The cost is cheap as well: about £50 per mirror.

Sara Monika Wikiel, a design student from Poland, tackled shoulder surfing as well. She designed a polycarbonate shutter that attaches to a wall on the left side of an ATM and can be adjusted by a user in order to obscure their actions on a number pad.

During her research, she said she found out how easy it was to see someone enter a PIN. She went to an upstairs window in Central Saint Martins College's building and watched an ATM, using the zoom on her camera. In about 15 minutes, she said she would have been able to record five PINs.

The shield is a one-way mirror, so people using an ATM and looking out still have visibility. One of the possible drawbacks of the shutter is vandalism, although Wikiel said an anti-scratch coating can be applied.

ATM fraud has been evolving. Criminals are now using a specially constructed piece of metal that goes into the regular card slot in order to trap cards, said Tony Blake, detective sergeant with the Dedicated Cheque and Plastic Crime Unit.

The piece of metal captures just one card. After the customer leaves the machine, the criminal pulls the device out with card in hand. By using a small video camera secretly mounted on the machine or shoulder surfing, the criminal will likely have the person's PIN and can make withdrawals, Blake said.

Since most banks limit how much money a person can take out in a day, the fraudsters will often do one transaction a minute before midnight and then a minute after, taking as much as £400 per withdrawal. If a person doesn't call the bank quickly, the withdrawals will continue, Blake said.

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