Sophisticated criminals, evolving with advances in security and technology, have found new ways to hack and clone their way into New York City's countless ATMs, their handiwork so invisible they slip away without notice.
This is not a story about those people.
This is a story about a small, dedicated burglary crew, one almost stubbornly set in its ways. Its members work with the stealth and finesse of a demolition team — resembling one, in fact, with their tools of blunt force.
Police said this crew has struck at least nine times in three boroughs in the last three months, their locations all different — bodegas, laundries, a diner — but with the same prize, a feature of modern convenience so common as to be practically invisible to regular customers.
They are after ATMs. Not the PIN codes of legitimate customers, not cloned debit cards, but the whole machine, from keypad to cord.
Detective Ronnie Morales, with a grand larceny squad in Brooklyn, described their modus operandi: "Basically just brute force."
Police said the two- or three-man crew has been at work since at least September 6, when they broke into a Cuban pastry shop on Wilson Avenue in Bushwick and pried open the ATM near the counter.
"Two guys with a crowbar," said a building manager, who watched surveillance video later.
The following night, the group struck again, this time in Ozone Park, Queens, another bodega. The most recent burglary attributed to the group was on October 14 at Sunset Bagels in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. They broke the lock on a door, but fled empty-handed.
All told, after six thefts and three failed attempts, the crew has stolen about US$39,000 ($60,000).
"It's a rough way to make a living," Morales said. "A few thousand dollars at a clip."
Most of the burglaries have taken place in a pocket of adjoining neighbourhoods on the border of Brooklyn and Queens, including Bushwick and Ridgewood. "I know they're familiar with the locations," Morales said. "They go straight to the ATM."
In surveillance videos, two men appear to strain with their heavy loads. Cash machines have shrunk in size over the years, perhaps making them attractive targets, but they still weigh hundreds of pounds and are usually bolted to the floor at four different points.
At one time, the most effective tools for stealing an ATM were a truck and a chain. Nick Diamantis, an owner of the Goodfellas Diner in Maspeth, Queens, lost an ATM that way in 2016.
The thief entered the closed diner, wrapped a chain around the machine, hooked the other end to his vehicle and sped off. "It ripped the door and frame out of the wall," Diamantis said, and crushed a heavy-duty garbage container on its way to freedom.
When that ATM was replaced, the new one was stolen in the same way, damaging the door frame once again. After that, Diamantis said no more ATMs.
"I was torn, because we didn't take credit cards and we needed the ATM," Diamantis said. "After that, if someone didn't have the cash, I didn't charge them for their meal, frankly." They could pay later: "It was kind of like an honor system." (The diner was badly damaged in a fire in 2018 and has not yet reopened.)
The two men seen on video in the recent burglary spree don't need a truck or a chain. "There've been instances where they use bolt cutters," Morales said. "There've been other cases where they've used monkey wrenches or a crowbar."
He said he has known ATM thieves to use everything from crowbars to power tools, like grinders, to break open the big boxes. They do not seem to be after specific models.
"It's not very, like, organised," the detective said. "The more I investigate and the more I look into it, if you're doing ATM burglaries, you're going to continue doing ATM burglaries. It's your thing."
An owner of the Deep End, a restaurant and bar on Wyckoff Avenue, near the sites of several ATM thefts, arrived for work one day in October to find that someone had tried to pry open a door. Surveillance cameras showed a car had been double-parked outside in broad daylight, between 6am and 7am. The would-be thieves apparently gave up and left.
"Two guys, masks, gloves," said the owner, declining to give his name or details on how the intruders failed, for fear they would try again.
He has no plans to remove the ATM inside.
"It's nice," he said. "I mean, cash is king."
Written by: Michael Wilson
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES