When Robert Hillestad tried to withdraw £200 from an automatic teller machine in London last April, he got a bait-and-switch. Almost literally.

“While waiting for the machine to reel off my receipt, the bills that had been dispensed were pulled back into the machine,” he says.

Hillestad was in the British capital for a quick vacation and to see the royal wedding, but the prospect of losing about $320 cast a long shadow across the experience. “Using an internet cafe nearby, I verified that the amount had, in fact, been debited from my account,” he says.

And so began a long journey to retrieve his money.

It turns out ATMs can inflict a lot of unnecessary pain on travelers. There are widespread reports of ATMs reclaiming money if it isn’t taken quickly enough. Sometimes, the funds are credited back to a customer’s account, sometimes not.

Another source of irritation: fees. Customers paid an average of $2.33 to use an ATM in 2010, up from $2.22 the year before (see chart, below), according to a Bankrate survey.

The fees rise every year, and travelers are hit hardest because they often have to pay their bank and the foreign bank whose machine they’re using.

I can’t think of any good reason to keep jacking up ATM fees, except good old-fashioned greed. But like overpriced telephones in hotel rooms, the days of charging excessive fees to use a money-machine are coming to an end. Various forms of cashless payment systems, including the kind that use cell phones and other wireless devices, are quickly replacing paper money as the preferred method of settling up with a merchant.

Banks are going to have to find another way to make money, I guess.

But back to the cash-sucking ATMs. I can understand why an automatic teller would, after a certain amount of time, reclaim the money. I mean, you don’t want a wad of bills flapping in the wind when an absent-minded customer fails to claim a withdrawal.

The UK banks seem to have their ATMs on a shorter timer than the ones back in the States, although the evidence for that is strictly anecdotal.

What the banks should have — but apparently don’t — is a foolproof way to redeposit the money. As a result, a significant number of bank customers report losing their ATM withdrawals that were reclaimed by the machines.

Hillestad tried to get a refund. He called Barclay Bank, which operated the ATM and he visited his bank in Nebraska. But the banks did nothing to help. His bank referred the matter to Barclay, and Barclay referred the matter back to his bank. By the time he contacted me, almost two months had passed without any sign of his £200.

I suggested he start a paperwork trail, since most of the communication with the banks had been by phone or in person. There’s no meaningful record of those conversations unless you’re the bank and have recorded the phone call. So Hillestad began documenting the problems and filed a formal written complaint.

A few days later, his bank credited him with the money.

“Although the situation has finally been resolved, I am concerned about other travelers who, no doubt, are continuing to experience the same problem,” he told me. “Can you suggest ways in which others, particularly senior citizens, could be alerted to this potential problem?”

Absolutely. Given that ATMs have a propensity to suck money back, you should remove the currency quickly when you’re making a withdrawal. Don’t wait for a receipt. When you see the money, take the money.

Also, after having been involved in Hillestad’s dispute, I highly recommend putting any grievance in writing and filing a formal dispute. Banks, like other companies, can’t ignore written requests as easily as they can disconnect a phone call or pretend it never happened.

Better yet, avoid the bait-and-switch ATMs with sky-high fees altogether, and use a credit card that doesn’t charge a foreign exchange fee.

(Photo: catatro nic/Flickr Creative Commons)