Michelle Singletary

WASHINGTON -- I've played out in my head many times what I would do if I were abducted and forced to withdraw money from an ATM.

Well, first, if the low-life took me to an automatic teller machine not owned by my bank, I'm sure an alarm would go off because I never use other bank ATMs to withdraw money. The machine would say, "What!?" -- and immediately spit out my card.

OK, that wouldn't really happen, but it's my delusion.

I've thought about plugging in the wrong PIN so many times that the ATM would lock up. But I would surely anger my abductor if I did that.

I've imagined pushing a panic button on the ATM that would summon the police.

Interestingly, within the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009 or Credit CARD Act was a provision for the Federal Trade Commission to study and report to Congress the cost-effectiveness of making available ATM emergency PIN technology that would enable a banking customer who is under duress to electronically alert a local law enforcement agency.

This week, the FTC issued the report, more than two months overdue. With a lot of "we don't know," the agency couldn't recommend anything.

Specifically, the FTC was asked to look at "emergency PIN" or "reverse PIN" and "alarm button" technologies. An emergency PIN would allow a customer in trouble to enter some variant of their regular bankcard PIN in the keypad and that would summon police. With a reverse PIN, a customer would punch in his or her PIN backward, which would alert authorities that a robbery was in progress. So if your PIN was "1234," you would hit "4321."

The reverse PIN has been rumored for years to be installed on ATMs. But this is an urban legend.

The FTC discussed another emergency PIN system that has been unsuccessfully marketed to banks. The "ATMOnGuard" requires a customer to punch one number after his or her PIN. The additional number would indicate whether the transaction was being conducted under duress.

Really, all the electronic alert options sound feasible to me.

But it took the FTC 38 pages to conclude that the available technology probably wouldn't "deter any type of ATM crime, and in some instances may actually increase the risk of danger to ATM customers." Oh, and even if the technology was effective, the costs of implementing an emergency PIN system could be substantial, although the agency couldn't give any estimates.


Michelle Singletary

Michelle Singletary is a nationally syndicated columnist for The Washington Post.

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