They can account a deposit amount incorrectly, dispense too little or too much cash, fail to give a receipt and keep a customer's banking card.
The most spectacular errors occur when ATMs dispense cash to anyone who walks by, including those without money in their accounts or even without accounts.
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A couple of times a year, news reports tell of crowds gathering around ATMs that mistakenly begin spewing bills. In 2010, Bank of Ireland ATMs dispensed more cash to customers than they actually had in their accounts, according to The New York Times. One taxi driver with nothing in the bank walked away with 700 euros.
Mistakes usually from human error
How often does it happen? Diebold Inc., a leading maker of ATMs, based in North Canton, Ohio, does not keep records of how many mistakes its machines make, the company says. A representative there says only that mistakes are rare.
However, mistakes do happen, says James Trocme, senior director of market research and knowledge management at Diebold. While they don't know how often they happen, mistakes by the machines can usually be traced to some form of human error. Poor maintenance practices especially can lead to ATM foul-ups, Trocme says.
Although no one in the industry seems to know how often mistakes occur, they generally agree about what to do to avoid being victimized by a rogue ATM.
1. Always get a printed receipt. The receipt contains important information such as the transaction date and time and the machine identifier, says Nessa Feddis, senior counsel for American Bankers Association based in Washington, D.C. Among other things, this will allow the ATM owner to check the photographic record that is often made of transactions.
2. Count your cash. John Prendergast, vice president of supervision for Conference of State Bank Supervisors, an advocacy group composed of state banking regulators based in Washington, D.C., acknowledges that safety concerns may sometimes preclude openly counting a fat stack of $20 bills.
"You need to be cognizant of your surroundings, particularly if there is anyone behind you waiting for the ATM," Prendergast says. "But I would absolutely count the money." It's possible that a video record of the transaction could be used to confirm how many bills you count out, he says.
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3. Notify the bank or ATM owner. You can find a phone number on the ATM, telling you whom to call in case the machine isn't located outside of a branch bank, Prendergast says.
4. Act quickly. If you let the ATM owner know immediately, it will make it more likely that the company can trace the error, Feddis says.
An ATM error can leave you baffled, infuriated and not knowing where to turn. But if you take the right steps, the mistake is likely to get corrected. "The outcomes in my experience have been the same," Prendergast says. "That's that the consumer is always dealt with very well and is not left in a bad position."
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