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A cautionary tale about using an ATM machine - you may have less recourse than you think!

On a recent Baltic cruise we stopped in Tallinn, Estonia. In the city center I used an ATM from Dansk Bank (large, well known Danish bank). I inserted my USAA ATM card. The machine provided all instructions in english. I followed all the standard transaction procedures and everything went well. Except... no cash and no receipt??? Instead the machine went back to the ready mode. My family waited for 15minutes but nothing. Tried calling the number on the wall but no english speakers on the other end. Two hours later on the ship I called USAA to report what happened. Indeed $105 was withdrawn from my account. They put in a reversal immediately pending investigation. When I arrived back home my claim was denied. They provided a log from Dansk indicating that with two minutes I had received 100 euros and a receipt. I asked for an open/closed report to verify my claim that they likely had at least 100 euros more in their machine then the receipts indicated. I also provided a sworn attestation from the three of us that what I reported took place. I also provided the ships itinerary indicating the ship had sailed five hours after my reported transaction took place (i.e., their log was faulty). Lastly, and for what it was worth, I sent a photo of the ATM and offered to provide the meta file. Their only response was that unless I can show a receipt indicating a malfunction, there was nothing they could do... no exceptions. This could have been far, far worse. I was going to take 1,000 euros out but decided I did not want to walk around with that much cash. I can lose a hundred dollars from my pocket and feel bad for a few days, then forget about it. What I lost here was much more than $100. It was lost faith in not only the banking system but USAA which is a top rated American, non-profit that provides financial services for active duty, veteran military.

Rick Steve's has written on this subject and I wish I had followed his advice. He says that one should only use an ATM inside a bank. That way if something malfunctions you have humans to talk to and work out the problem. If someone reads this and learns from it then perhaps it is not a total lose

Posted by
330 posts

Thanks for sharing. Kind of scary. I usually use the airport ATM (Glasgow and Dublin were the last ones i used and no fees from atm that i recall. I use wells fargo). Planning to do the same in Rome later this year. Hope this is a good idea. I need to do more research on this.

Posted by
11400 posts

That's awful ! Thank goodness it was a smaller amount but it's still horrifying !

Posted by
11613 posts

Something similar happened to me in Warsaw a few years ago, the ATM just flatlined. A malfunction, but I ended up out $360.

Posted by
4802 posts

The advice to use an ATM attached to a bank provides what I think is false security. In the event of an issue, it is likely that no help can be provided by the people inside, other than maybe a phone number to call. Most large banks have their ATMs operated by a separate group from the local branch, and likely even subcontract the operation to a third party.

Sorry for your loss, it does happen, but the message is that it is rare. I had a close call in Madrid, during my transaction, the machine went into a recovery mode and re-booted, luckily online I was able to see that no transaction went through. That points out the importance of being able to check activity in your accounts online and in real time.

Posted by
3216 posts

I am amazed at the response received from USAA - won't accept your report of an ATM malfunction unless you can show a receipt reporting the malfunction! How is that even possible?

Unfortunately, things like this happen and not just while you are on vacation in Europe. ATMs are machines and like any machine can malfunction. If this would have happened at the corner ATM near your house would the results be any different? Probably not.

Posted by
6136 posts

Even though this is a cautionary tale, one cannot avoid using ATMs while on travel. These kinds of oddball malfunctions are likely very rare as a percentage of total transactions, you just got unlucky. Weird stuff happens, unfortunately.

Posted by
2525 posts

What can be said about customer relations by USAA? Time to move your account is my reaction. I've only had one experience with an account hacked related to travel and the bank very promptly responded, posted "lost" monies into our account without fuss and otherwise were great.

Posted by
20597 posts

The same thing happen to me at my local bank's drive up ATM on a Sunday pm. Asked for a hundred, sounded like it ran normal, thought I could hear the five twenties being counted inside the ATM, and then nothing except the card was returned. It just sat there blinking. As I sat in the car, I immediately call the 800 number for my bank and reported the problem. A few days later an email indicated that all was normal, no malfunction detected, the hundred dollars had been dispensed and my account was charged. I immediately saw the branch manager who investigated for a couple of days and came to the same conclusion. What I wonder is did the next user get a bonus of one hundred dollars since the ATM cash balanced. Often wonder what would have happen had I tried again. In the end I got my hundred back but that had more to with having five accounts with the bank totaling in the high 5 figures, being a customer for over 30 years, and a stockholder going back most of those 30 years. The branch manager claimed to have never seen or heard of this problem. My brother who served on the board of directors of a bank in a neighboring state agreed. However, fraud is a big issue with ATM dispensing. Lots of claims for not receiving money - mostly asking for a hundred and getting eighty. ATMs have a lot of internal design to prevent that from happening - money dispensed is actually counted twice - but it is a machine.

I didn't lose faith in the banking system but just confirmed that machines can fail and sometimes fail in mysterious ways.

Posted by
315 posts

Prior to our last leave day I checked balances only to check pin numbers and access for ATM use. Then, just before we left I thought I would check again. Who knows why, I had never checked twice. The pin number for the debit card for the credit union would not work. Went inside, went outside again, went inside again..."Oh, this never happens!" I had to change pin number within the bank. I was wondering if anyone has thought to check balances before a withdrawal at an European ATM? Could this add a level of security if you have protected your pin number by covering the site to the pad? Could this identify a malfunction in the ATM?

Posted by
20597 posts

Generally there is a camera but it is focused on the user and not what the user is doing.

Posted by
592 posts

Same problem in Italy a few years ago. It started in Milan and then occurred intermittently for next two weeks throughout Italy.

Fortunately, my credit union made me whole upon my return. Several hundred euros involved.

Posted by
4498 posts

It is very rare, but this sort of thing does happen. Machines sometimes malfunction and either nothing was dispersed or it spit out extra money for the next customer. I suspect your bank would have a very hard time verifying what happened, especially with a foreign bank.

I had a similar thing happen in Rome once with a French ATM. Did not get my money and was out a couple hundred. I never did follow up as I was traveling for a long period; I just wrote it off as a rare way to lose money.

I'm not really sure that an ATM in a bank would make things any different. Bank employees probably do not have access to the machine.

Posted by
1477 posts

Here in the U.S., at my bank, employees do have access to the ATM.

Posted by
7123 posts

Here in the SF Bay Area, BofA employees have total control of, and access to, their ATMs.

Posted by
628 posts

A year ago my husband was a branch manager for a small Bank of America branch in the US. He said each ATM was loaded with $200K each week. I was surprised that he said this problem happened about 3 times a week at his branch. He also said that at least 3 times while he was there those ATMS were off $10K in only two days (weekends when the bank wasn't open so the ATM continued with the problem). He said his branch employees were instructed to direct the customers to the main 800 line. He believes everyone received reimbursement because no one came back and complained - and they would have been back! :)

He said that this is why he likes to work with a large bank such as Bank of America. They will usually resolve the issue quickly - especially if you are a customer in good standing with the bank.

I was surprised he said this happens so often.

Posted by
823 posts

"What can be said about customer relations by USAA?" As a USAA customer, I can attest that their customer service is well above industry norms and well beyond reproach.

Posted by
3216 posts

At most banks in the US, the employees have access to the ATM that is located inside the branch.

The ATM that might be located in the drive through is serviced by an armored car company and employees have no access.

If the branch is inside a larger building where the ATM is located in the lobby of the building but not within the area of the branch that can be locked off from public access, it is most likely also serviced by an armored car company and employees have no access.

I'm sure access is similarly configured in Europe.

So choose your ATM wisely.

Posted by
209 posts

I have been a USAA member for over thirty years and this is the first negative thing I have ever heard about their customer service. I am really, really surprised they did not make you whole.

Posted by
1029 posts

It's really odd that this happens. As I understand it, there's a sensor that counts the cash as it is dispersed. It's supposed to be sensitive and accurate enough to detect one or more bills stuck together.

https://www.quora.com/How-do-ATM-machines-work-internally

But of course machines do fail from time to time.

Sorry to hear about your experience and thank you for the warning.

Posted by
844 posts

This happened to me 3 months ago in Denver. I was at my home bank during open hours. I went inside,
they took a report, told me that it might take up to a week to get it straight. Two days later my account had been credited the money I was trying to take out. Even at home now I do my atm business during banking hours at my home bank.

Posted by
30929 posts

Perhaps you were the victim of cash trapping scam.....

"Cash trapping is an attempt by perpetrators to capture cash dispensed by an ATM during a transaction: the criminal attaches a device to the ATM so that when the ATM tries to dispense cash, the cash is trapped and the customer cannot retrieve it."

The ATM may have dispensed the cash, but it was prevented from being dispensed by a mechanical blocking device. The scammer may have been watching and as soon as you left, he released the cash and collected it for himself. As far as the bank is concerned, the ATM dispensed the cash and the card holder retrieved it.

"I was going to take 1,000 euros out but decided I did not want to walk around with that much cash."

It's highly unlikely that the machine would have dispensed an amount that large. European ATM's have a different limit than what you're used to at home.