Ridiculous or not? The ATM sucked my money back

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)

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • ChrisY

    ““Can you suggest ways in which others, particularly senior citizens, could be alerted to this potential problem?””

    Why “particularly senior citizens”?

  • Allen

    I have never experienced a machine reclaiming my money after it has been dispensed, here in the UK.  Why wouldn’t you be focused on collecting the money as soon as it comes out?

  • Guest

    I have a hard time believing that the money was dispensed and in the maybe 10 seconds it takes to print the receipt the money was sucked back in.  you went to an ATM to get money, why would you leave it just sitting there?  A receipt is more important that the money?

  • Tom

    Chris seems to be most worried about senior citizens, grandmothers, people on the way to weddings and CEOs. I don’t fite any of those catagories, but am advancing towards the senior citizen title.

  • emanon256

    I never knew ATMs did this, but am glad to learn so I can avoid it in the future.  Perhaps this particular ATM had its timing set incorrectly to suck it back in that quickly?  It’s frustrating how long it took the bank to resolve this, but I am glad the money was finally returned.  Most of the ATMs I have used have cameras, I wonder if the camera can see the money as well.  If so, it should be easy for the bank to see if it’s been sucked back in or not.
    I always try to only use my credit card when traveling internationally, but I seem to always find a place or two that only accepts cash.

  • Aelphaba

    Do you have any specific credit cards to suggest? I have yet to find any that don’t charge foreign transaction fees.

    PNC Bank, however, has a premium checking account that if you keep a min balance in it, it’s free, and they don’t charge you to withdraw money from anywhere in the world. It just works for cash withdrawals though – you still have to pay the transaction fees if you use it like a credit card.

  • Ames

    Maybe I have lived in urban areas too long, but when the cash comes out, my hand is on it right away.   The cash is often hidden in my bag before the receipt arrives and my feet are moving away as soon as I have that receipt.  Too dangerous to linger at an ATM and announce to anyone nearby that I have cash!  And no, it’s not bad neighborhoods – there is more money to be had in good neighborhoods, so that is where the thieves are.

  • Will Belden

    If the ATM is going to reclaim the money after a period, then it should be re-deposited immediately, and it should NOT affect your daily withdrawal limit.  That last part is key.  I think I have a $400 limit.  If I withdraw $400, but the ATM reclaims it (and even re-deposits it), I still wouldn’t be able to try again!

  • Raskal

    If you’re in the US, Bank of America has a Global ATM Alliance, and avoid paying surcharges or international access fees on your account from over 35,000 cash machines in over 40 countries, including Australia, France, Germany, United Kingdom Canada or USA. 

    Some of the banks are: Scotiabank in Canada, BNP Paribas in France/Italy/Ukraine, Barclays Woolwich in  The UK, Gibraltar, Spain, France, Netherland Antilles, Bahamas and Seychelles; and 190 ATMS throughout parts of Africa (Botswana, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Mauritius, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe), Deutsche Bank in Germany, Poland, India and Spain as well as Westpac in over 1600 ATMs thought Australia, 500 ATMs in New Zealand and 32 ATMs in the South Pacific (Fiji, Vanuatu, Tonga, Cook Island, Samoa, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands).

    All the listed banks have reciprocal agreements with each other and the list is expanding.

  • Sam Varshavchik

    The key point to the story is not that the ATM sucked the money back, but the fact that nothing was done until the customer started a paper trail.

    The ugly truth that nobody really wants to talk about is that  when you call customer service, any customer service, not just a bank’s, the top priority of whoever takes the call is simple: to get you off the phone. They get rated based on how quickly each call gets dispatched. So, their goal is simply to get you off the phone, ASAP, so that they get another call.

    Now, most of the time, the fastest way to get you off the phone is to get you the scripted answer to your question.

    “Yes sir, we’ll investigate it and get back to you in 48 hours, thank you for calling Octopus Bank. *click* Octopus Bank, operator 8923 speaking, how can I help you?”

    In this case, it’s possible that the bank had a customer service script for handling an atm-sucked-my-money-back type of a call. But this doesn’t happen very often, and the rep simply didn’t know about the script, so he just basically told him, whatever, thank you for calling. Maybe the rep intended to send an internal inquiry later, while waiting for another call, but forgot about it.

  • Lawrence Kaplan

    The one notable famous credit card that does not charge international currency exchange fees is Capital One.

  • cjr001

    I, too, have never faced a situation where the ATM took the money back before I could get it. It sounds perhaps as if this is an issue with this specific bank’s ATMs.

    Also, more and more, you have the option to e-mail the receipt to you, or to your bank account messaging center, rather than receive a paper copy. And that means one fewer thing to worry about having to grab from the machine.

  • emanon256

    I have the Chase Marriott Rewards visa and they now waive all foreign transactions fees.  I realize that probably won’t be of interest to anyone unless they stay at hotels often.  I also have a Diners Club card for work, and they new waive all foreign transaction fees too.

  • Phil

    I was at my local bank and using the ATM, cash came out, was putting it in my wallet at the same time the receipt appeared. I went ahead and continued to put the money away and by the time I was ready to take the receipt it was pulled back into the ATM machine, so not only your money but the reciept that was issued can be pulled back. I would assume that because the receipt has private information on it, the bank is trying to protect it. Bank in qustion HSBC

  • othermike27

    Inattention and distract-ability know no age boundaries.

    Several years ago an ATM at my local bank sucked back my $200 when I didn’t grab it, and it took me a day or two to sort out the issue. The money was sitting there for less than 10 seconds. For anyone who thinks this is preposterous, go down to your favorite ATM and try it with your $200.

    Lesson learned: when the money is dispensed, your hand should be right there to grab it. Likewise, for those ATMs that swallow the card completely, if you don’t grab it pretty quick, the ATM will keep it.

    As for seniors in particular, I’m about to claim that credential. My wife and I agreed to watch over each other when doing money transactions, important paperwork, or anything that might be a big nuisance to undo. Doing this while also avoiding running battles with your spouse is quite a balancing act, but that is another topic.

  • Monica

    I’m not sure what private information you are referring to on the ATM receipt. My last transaction only showed the amount a withdrew and that it came from my checking account. No account number was visible. 

    My bank’s ATM (Navy Fed) won’t even print out the remaining balance anymore. I have to request a separate balance check to see that information, and it still gives the option to print a receipt or just display the balance on the screen. 

  • Monica

    I am with you. My hand is hovering over the dispenser even before the money starts to come out. The receipt is the lowest priority. The money and my card are the most important.

  • Sadie Cee

    That happened to me last week. I put the money away quickly and reached for the receipt. My hand was on it pulling it out but the force being used to suck it back in was greater.  No receipt.

  • Bill

    I’ve never heard of anyone I know having their money “sucked back”.  I had always assumed that if there was an issue with a bank machine, often they have video and they would do a count on the machine and see if there’s a discrepancy.

    There was a case, years ago, where there was money sitting in the dispenser.  I pulled it all out, stuck the money inside the closed bank, and called them about it.

  • Sadie Cee

    Have we all learned the lesson?  Grab the money as fast as you can.  The stories I could tell about my experiences with ATMs could fill a book.  I suppose the reclaiming of money not retrieved immediately thus providing an opportunity for it to be claimed by someone else is supposed to “protect” the customer.  However, if it is reabsorbed by the machine, the customer’s account should be credited without delay.  It can be done. 

    As for the reclaiming of the receipt, remember the days when the floor and area around the ATM would be littered with receipts that customers hadn’t bother to take?  I haven’t noticed this lately.  Could be the reabsorption is the banks’ housekeeping solution.   

    All told, I firmly believe that banks and all financial institutions that have ATM facilities have to come up with a better way of allowing us access to our accounts than these machines.  Nothing is foolproof, I know, but standing in the street getting cash from a machine under the watchful eyes of passersby and hangers-on can be perilous.

    I support the sort of high-tech solution offered in the summary above even though we know that any alternative will present other problems.   

  • MikeZ

    I honestly do not understand how someone could let the money sit there for so long as to have it sucked back in. The money comes out, and you should immediately grab it, count it if you are by yourself, or pocket it if others are around. the screen will wait for you to pocket the cash. What is more important, a receipt, or the damn cash???

    Letting money sit there is just an invitation for someone else to grab it or see how much you took out. Don’t make yourself a target.

  • Clare

    In Italy, it is a surprisingly common problem for totally legitimate ATM machines (i.e., connected to the walls of well-known banks) to accept your PIN number, appear to go about withdrawing the money from your account… and then suddenly tell you that oh, the transaction has been cancelled, here’s your card back.  And since there supposedly was no transaction, they don’t even necessarily give you a receipt.  But THEN you check your account online and discover that the money was debited from your account! 
    This has happened to NUMEROUS persons whom I have met/worked with in Italy, and is not limited to the ATM’s of any one particular bank.  In fact, we’ve even determined that it has occurred at ATM’s where other expats have withdrawn money repeatedly without any problems–so it clearly doesn’t happen all the time to all the US account-holders using a particular machine…
    But what has ALWAYS happened has been that the person immediately contacts his US bank, screeches very loud in writing, and they put the money back into his account.  I don’t know whether the Italian bank ends up pocketing the money or not–none of us have been able to establish where the system is actually breaking down.  But the US bank, whatever it is, has always done the right thing.
    (Now that I’ve written this, watch–since I’m in Italy right now, this will happen to me today and my US bank will refuse to work with me…)

  • cjr001

    Tom also seems to be the only Perfect Human Being on the planet.

  • Geographer

    The ATM machines in France normally ask you to take your card back, and then ask you to take the cash;  the receipt comes out last.  If you are watching the screen it would seem difficult not to be aware that the money has been dispensed and should be taken, and you do not have to read French to know this.  You are either asked when you put in your card which language you use (a minimum of four), or the machine recognizes the country where the card was issued and the instructions on screen come up in the appropriate language.   And this is true in small towns at the ATMs of the major national banks.  It is hard to see how you could be tricked into letting the machine take back the money;  and an American in London would be using machines whose on screen instructions would be in English.

    I think that if someone is inattentive when using one of these machines, then the bank rightly programs the machine to take back the money, and provided you are made good by the bank or your bank, then there is no less, as was true in this case.  

  • Geographer

    Apologies, I meant no “loss’ not “less” in the last sentence of my previous post.   And for the record I am a senior citizen and am very aware of the pitfalls of not paying attention … as should any other senior.

  • Grant

    What a useful article. I had no idea that ATM’s might do this. I just warned my son, and I’ll be forwarding the piece to all the folks in my address book. Thanks, Chris!   

  • Livermorebrianc

     Sometimes this is a ATM tampering scam. They rig the machine such that the cash is dispensed but gets jammed inside the dispenser. The thief watches the ATM for someone to make a withdrawl, you walk away without your money and they walk up, remove the material jamming the machine and your money.

    It’s a commonly known scam.

  • ‘Senior citizen’ Grant

    Because some of us are older and slower. I know I am!  :-)

  • Mark K

    Most ATM have always sucked the money back in after a given time.  Even the older ones that used to dispense the money into a tray where the customer had to open the door to get the money would lock if anything was left in the drawer.  The receipt reclaim is a fairly new option.  But I agree with the other posters that whenever I am getting anything out of an ATM I immediately grab whatever come out of whatever slot so it doesn’t get lost.

    Whenever there is a problem at an ATM the customer should always immediately file an official report with their bank, not a phone call or visit to the ATM owning bank, to get your money reclaimed.  The bank that owns the ATM, if it actually is a bank since practically anyone can run an ATM these days, cannot return your money to you via your personal request because of various banking rules.  There is an official process that has to be followed where your bank requests the ATM owner to give them credit for the money you don’t receive and eventually credit you.  The ATM owner does count the money on a regular basis and the machine logs whenever there is any activity including misdispenses and it should be easy for them to know who they owe money to. 

    If your bank does not work to quickly get you credit for any ATM issues – change banks. 

  • Mark K

    There are two fees to watch out for when using credit or debit cards in foreign countries.  First is the international “service” fee of up to 3% that is charged for your “convenience” of getting cash.  And on debit cards there is the usuall, but higher than domestic, charge.

    Chase offers several credit cards that don’t charge the 3% anymore.  All are travel related, tied to airlines or hotels, and do have annual fees.  But depending on your charges while travelling, can offset the 3% other free cards charge.  Also at Chase if you have their top tier checking account, your debit card has no ATM fees anywhere in the world.

    Capital One is another good option.  Their credit card has no international fees and in some states you can open a checking account and get an ATM card that also has no international fees or withdrawal fees.

  • Carver

    Banks have already come up with numerous ways to access your money that are safer.  Some choices include

    1.  Point of Sale at Gorocery stores
    2.  ATM machines inside commercil establishment
    3.  Visa/MC debit cards

    and lately, I’ve seen more and more banks place ATMs in an inside foyer that requires and ATM card or credit card access after hours.

    Basically, it just requires some diligence and commen sense on your part.

  • Sasha

    ATM’s also suck your card back if it isn’t removed quickly enough.  I think that’s fine, if the bank has somehow told you about this, however, most of the time, you have no idea until it happens, just like the cash.

  • Mark K

    If you need the actual cash, option 1 is not commonly available in Europe and option 3 still requires you to find an ATM.   Even here in the US many grocery chains are reducing the amount of cash back you can request to less than $50.

    I always try and use an ATM that is inside either at the airport when arriving in a country (making sure it is a Bank operated machine and not one from the currency exchange booths) or at grocery or other businesses where I feel comfortable pulling out the card.  I try to avoid any ATM on an exterior wall of a building where passing people can see what I am doing.  I never feel safe with those, even in my home town.  IF I do have to use one, I ask someone travelling with me to watch my back.

  • noah

    Really? That seems crazy.  It’s not how it works at my bank (Chase).  I regularly use Chase ATMs, and often find the receipt of a previous customer.

  • Sadie Cee

    Do you really believe that ATMs located inside foyers, stores, banks, etc. are any safer than those located on the street? 

    One of my ATM stories – I stood in line at the ATM which was located inside the mall just outside the door of a bank (not my bank).  Two men were spending an inordinately long time at the machine.  I was patient and reasoned that they were simply unfamiliar with the ATM process.  They finally moved away and I carried out my withdrawal.  I lived less than 5 min. from the mall and by the time I reached home there was a message from my bank asking me to call.  I did and was told that their security dept. had cancelled my debit card because as soon as I left the ATM someone had tried to take money from my account, unsuccessfully.  They know the history of my debit card use and took no chances.  They also said that their security dept. had had been monitoring that particular location because devices were being used to gain access to personal data.  Those were the only details she would share with me.  A replacement card was sent to me by courier the next day.

    Another time, I was next in line at the ATM inside another bank when a middle-aged man, dressed quite casually cut in ahead of me and used a torch with a blue light to examine the ATM in minute detail.  He pulled on various parts of the machine and as he turned to leave, I asked him what he had been doing.  He laughingly told me that he could not tell me.  A woman in the line behind me told us all that he was an inspector working for the bank who was hired to check ATMs for extraneous devices.  She also told me of the perps who sit in their cars in the parking lot who can gain access to PINs and data electronically without being inside the bank. 

    I also travel frequently outside of North America and in villages and towns off the beaten track where most, if not all, merchants (and taxi drivers) are not customers of credit card companies and so all transactions must be completed in cash.  This story may be apocryphal, but friends told me of a thief being shot and killed by a tourist in Portugal as he tried to rob him of the money he had taken from an ATM inside the bank!  They warned me to be careful and to stay away from that particular location.

    Once when I had to take a train in a small town in Portugal, I found that I had arrived at the station after the ticket agent had left for the day (after 6 p.m.).  There was a ticket machine at which one could use a credit card for ticket purchases.  I whipped out my card and it didn’t work.  The machine kept asking for a PIN # and of course I had none.  No ticket.  The station caretaker finally came along and told me that I would have to buy the ticket on the train.  Found out later that credit cards had to have their own PIN.  This happened many, many years before Canadian banks issued us with credit cards that have PIN #s.  Debit cards, yes…credit cards not until a few years ago.

    Am still annoyed at having had my wallet stolen here in Toronto in 2007 with most of my credit, debit and ID cards as well as cash.  That was a bummer and panic time!  Never want to live through that again.  I am now willing to be a guinea pig and have a microchip inserted inside my body if that will serve us better.  Peace!    

  • Jeremy

    While it is true that Capital One cards do not itemize an international exchange fee on their statements, that doesn’t mean they don’t make money off the international transaction!  They are simply giving you a poorer exchange rate and profit there.  Other banks will use MasterCard’s standard interbank exchange rate but then add on an exchange fee to cover the costs of the currency exchange.  Personally I find the typical system of itemizing the exchange fees as fairer – no matter what you have to study very closely to figure out which system actually saves you money.

  • http://twitter.com/comanchepilot Joe Farrell

    How to avoid the problem?

    of. the.

    problem solved. The receipt is the least of your problems  . . . .  as you discovered.

  • Jeremy

    The US has been way behind in educating customers on the use PINs for credit cards.  PINs have long been available for MC/Visa but most people only use them for cash advances at ATMs.  However internationally it is very common to require a PIN at such ticket machines and similar.  It is something every consumer should be aware of before traveling overseas with a credit card.

  • Mark K

    Your ticket machine problem is very common now and even if you had your PIN for that credit card it probably would not have worked.  The European credit cards also have an embedded chip to validate it is a real card that works together with the PIN to help authorize your transaction.  Most unattended credit card machines (those where you run your card through and there is no clerk there to handle the transaction) in Europe now require those types of cards.  Unfortunately, most banks in the US don’t offer those types of cards and have no plans to do so.  So most US tourists are out of luck when buying train tickets, gasoline, and most other stuff after hours unless the machines also take cash.  

    And no I don’t think that the ATMs located inside foyers are necessarily safer if it is late night or in a bad neighborhood as far as fraud is concerned.  I do think you are less likely to be robbed of your cash at locations inside businesses where there are more people around like a grocery during a busy time of day.  And if I see someone taking too long at an ATM or hanging around the door to the ATM foyer, I just move on.

    Even when you don’t use an ATM or the credit card machine at a merchant your card can get compromised.  I just got called today by my card issuer that someone attempted to purchase 12 000 Euro worth of plane tickets with my card in Paris (1st class to Tehran).  This is a card I only use for emergencies and it has been over a year since it was used anywhere.  Glad they caught it.

  • Utopiavet

    Just the same as going into the bank and having a teller give you money… once the money is dispensed; it’s your money and your responsibility to safe guard, not the bank’s.  The ATM is just the same as a bank teller, except you have 24hr/7day access.

  • Medusaboutiquehotelsydney

    Happened to me,took almost three months for me to be refunded

  • anonymous

    Once upon a time I did software development for ATM systems. There are many reasons to suck the money back – the machines (even then) were capable of detecting a number of faults. There were, for example, sensors that would detect that the number of bills being dispensed was incorrect. That said, the machines also automatically reversed the transaction when the pulled the bills back.

  • Linda

    I agree with what you say about the customer service reps on phone calls.  However I have found that using the “contact us” email feature can be just as frustrating and I think their objective is the same – reply as quickly as possible to as many emails as possible.  The answer I receive typically shows that the rep has only scanned my question and sent whatever form reply seems to hit a few of my keywords.  Multiple emails are usually required before my issue is actually addressed, and sometimes it never is.

  • jikinn

    It looks like Mr. Hillestad is being quoted about senior citizens, not Chris.

  • Cindy

    Thanks again for the input on timing.

    HOWEVER – how does one get CASH from an atm with a CREDIT CARD without fees?

    This is considered a LOAN!!! B.A.D. advise!


    in reply to the idiot from the uk that posted on top of me, i recently just went to a chase bank here in the u.s. and it gave me less then 10 seconds before it shot back in the machine, theres 101 reasons i could give you why i was delayed those 7 seconds, the point is, IN TODAYS GENERATION WITH COMPUTERS BEING SO SOPHISTICATED, THIS MATTER SHOULD BE CORRECTED AND REIMBURST INSTEAD OF BEING INCONVIENCED AND INVESTIGATED FOR 10 BUSINESS DAYS.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=530479200 Dana Scheider

    I think because often – not always – senior citizens are less technologically savvy than younger people (not that an ATM is that complicated, of course). But also, many seniors have special health needs and suffer more from unnecessary stress than younger people do. Finally, senior citizens are very frequently the targets of fraud and other kinds of dishonesty by people who can take advantage of their concerns about aging, taking care of their families, and tying up the loose ends in their lives before they become unable to manage their own affairs. If you believe, as I do, that many companies engage, on occasion, in at least a few activities that are actually fraudulent (not just unfair or inconvenient), they may be taking advantage of seniors in the same way.

  • blee

    Plenty of reasons try scresming children or you just got off at 430am and got distracted by that screaming child. It happens!