Gangs find new way to rob ATMs: Follow the repairmen
Image via Fresh Take Florida.

atm robberies
'This tactic is low risk and high reward.'

Two men in a Houston-based criminal gang have pleaded guilty in federal court after being charged as part of a roving nationwide ATM crime spree in which a new method was used to break into cash machines, robbing banks in Florida and other states and netting hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Charles Deon Mathews, 30, and Shai Trymaine Fields, 31, grabbed the cash by tracking and threatening an ATM repairman in Tallahassee while he was fixing the unlocked machine in broad daylight — a relatively new crime technique that prompted an FBI warning to law enforcement, “Traveling ATM Robbery Crews Shift Tradecraft to Include Surveilling Robbery Targets.”

In previous robberies, criminal gangs often targeted ATMs with the so-called “hook and chain” method at night or in the early morning hours. Thieves would back up a large truck to an ATM, secure a chain around it and yank the machine out of the ground before making off with it in the vehicle, according to the FBI.

But the Houston-area gang, including Mathews and Fields, has recently begun to shift gears. Here’s how they do it, according to the FBI and security experts:

The robbers start by precisely damaging an ATM near its safe door, so it sends out an error message, but does not cause enough harm for the ATM to send out a “panic” alert that would involve the police. The error message prompts a service technician to be notified via an app of the faulty machine, and the repairman will come out to fix it, according to the FBI and Steven Collinson, a security expert from March Networks, a Canada-based ATM security consulting firm.

The thieves hide and wait until the repairman arrives and opens the ATM for repairs. They then ambush the technician and remove the cash from the unlocked machine — all in minutes.

“This tactic is low risk and high reward,” the FBI said in its warning late last year. “ATM service technicians often work alone, unarmed, with minimal security and often in less populated or remote areas,” the FBI said.

The warning said the Houston-based robbery crew surveilled and targeted ATM service technicians in Indianapolis and Peoria, Arizona. The gang made off with $132,520 from the ATM in Indianapolis and $108,200 from the cash machine in Peoria.

In the Indianapolis robbery, one of the robbers held a gun to the side of the technician’s head and struck him with the barrel of the weapon.

The FBI detailed how Mathews and Fields, who pleaded guilty in Tallahassee last month to one count each of bank robbery, robbed a Wells Fargo Bank ATM on Mahan Drive in Tallahassee of $88,710 on July 19. The FBI arrested them in November.

At about 1:30 p.m. a repair technician working for Diebold-Nixdorf, a company contracted to maintain Wells Fargo ATMs, arrived at the Mahan Drive ATM because it was showing an error message indicating the safe door was not closed, according to court records.

The repairman “discovered that the ATM’s sensor was bent outwards toward the safe door,” according to an interview the tech gave to a Tallahassee police department detective cited in the federal court records.

The technician described how he heard a vehicle pull up after repairing the sensor but before the ATM could be locked again.

Mathews and Fields, wearing masks and hoods, rushed the technician and, fearing the men were armed, he raised his arms, ducked down and began to move backward. The robbers — Mathews wearing gloves and Fields with socks on his hands — removed several cassettes, which hold the bills, from the machine. The robbery was captured on surveillance video.

On the drive away, they threw the empty cassettes on the roadside after having removed the cash.

According to the FBI, ATMs typically contain four cassettes — two for $20 notes and two for $50 notes. Each cassette holds up to 2,000 bills. That would amount to $280,000 in a fully stocked ATM. Some ATMs dispense $100 bills.

“It appeared the suspects had a working knowledge of the system and knew how to access the cassettes,” the technician told the Tallahassee detective, noting that the robbers were familiar with how to release the locking mechanism to allow the cash trays to slide out.

The two may have researched on the internet how each type of ATM works as the information is readily available online, Collinson said.

Mathews and Fields had been trailing the repairman before the robbery because security footage showed their car parked at a bank where the technician had serviced an ATM earlier that day before being called to the Wells Fargo location. The FBI noted in its warning that the surveillance and tracking of an ATM repairman from one location to another also occurred in an ATM robbery in Arizona.

The government’s documents filed in the case do not indicate how authorities believe the pair could initially determine the location of ATM technicians fixing machines at other banks, allowing the criminals to begin their surveillance before following the repairmen to the location that was eventually robbed.

The Tallahassee getaway car, a 2020 blue Nissan Rogue, was later tracked via a license plate reader to Gainesville, where Mathews and Fields dropped it off at the Gainesville Regional Airport, bought tickets and flew back to Houston, according to court records.

In airport surveillance footage, they are seen wearing clothes that matched those worn during the robbery.

When they returned to Houston, Mathews and Fields took photos and videos of themselves with the stolen cash, dressed in the same clothes they were wearing on the plane during the flight home, according to court filings.

About a month later, on Aug. 18, federal authorities believe the pair struck again, robbing an ATM of about $150,000 at a Chase Bank in Sterling Heights, Michigan, using the same technique.

However, federal documents say that only Mathews and another person participated in that robbery. While it remains unclear whether the second person was Fields, federal authorities noted that they appear to have been traveling at the same time from Houston to Detroit, less than 30 miles from Sterling Heights. The pair later took photos and videos of themselves posing with the cash from the Chase ATM.

Mathews and Fields did not admit to the Michigan heist and were not charged with that crime.

A Houston FBI agent later discovered that the getaway car had been rented under the same alias used during the Florida ATM robbery, according to the affidavit. The FBI then checked flight logs and found that Mathews had been on a plane to Houston from Detroit the night after the ATM robbery.

A cooperating defendant also told the FBI that Mathews had robbed a bank in Dallas earlier last year and showed photographs of Mathews holding large amounts of cash following that theft, according to court documents. Mathews was not charged in that crime.

Mathews and Fields each face a maximum of 20 years in prison when they are sentenced in Tallahassee on April 25, according to federal court records. They must also pay Wells Fargo back the $88,710 that they stole.


This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at [email protected]. You can donate to support our students here.

Fresh Take Florida

One comment

  • Earl Pitts "Sage Political Expert Emeritas" American

    March 10, 2024 at 10:13 am

    Good Morn’Ting America,
    Reasearch indicates these two crooks are “Dook 4 Brains Leftists” that voted for J0e 8iden in the last Presidental election.
    They will be relaxing their sphincters for a few years “doing laundry for the govornment”.
    Thank you America,
    Earl Pitts American

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