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ATMs still dispense cash — that’s why people blow them up — but what’s their future

Photos: FBI investigating blown up ATM outside Tacoma bank

Photos of the scene where an ATM was blown up in the drive-thru lane of a Tacoma bank early Tuesday, and the FBI is helping Tacoma police investigate. Search dogs were brought in to look for suspects.
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Photos of the scene where an ATM was blown up in the drive-thru lane of a Tacoma bank early Tuesday, and the FBI is helping Tacoma police investigate. Search dogs were brought in to look for suspects.

How much do you notice automated teller machines? Only on those rare occasions when you actually need one, more than likely. Otherwise they tend to fade into the background, like streetlights or sidewalks.

Thus the recent local flurry of physical attacks on ATMs serves as something of a reminder of their existence, an, “Oh yeah, those things,” moment that is remarkable for how recent, in relative terms, cash machines are as a component of routine, everyday life.

Kids, gather ‘round your elder while he regales you with tales of life’s hardships in the olden days. There was a time when not only did money not come spewing out of a machine any time you wanted it — I know, I know, it sounds too horrible to contemplate — but credit cards were not issued to anyone who could fog a mirror, were not accepted everywhere and were regarded as best used only for large purchases.

Those who wanted some walking-around money had to go to a bank to make a withdrawal from their account, often using (to reference another archaic remnant of the banking system, and one many of you don’t deal with) a paper check. Another strategy was to take the paycheck to the bank and deposit most of it, getting the rest in folding money. Since most banks didn’t maintain weekend hours, better get there before they closed on Friday. Failing that, you might find a business willing to cash a check — or a friend willing to float you a loan until Monday.

ATMs began making their appearance in the United States in earnest in the 1970s, and once they did, Americans took to them the way they did to fast-food joints. No more racing to the bank before it closed. No more fumbling with the checkbook and holding everybody else up in the checkout line at the grocery store.

Networks made the machines even more useful. First it was just your own bank’s machines, and if yours was a small, local institution that limited the range of usefulness. Then it became possible to use other banks’ machines (taking care to watch for nasty transaction fees) in the same town or state. Now you can access cash in machines around the world. No more fumbling with traveler’s checks (yes, they’re still around).

The number of ATMs just in this country is somewhere between 450,000 and 500,000, and if that sounds a little vague, wait until you get a sense of whether the numbers will be trending upward — or toward zero, following the path blazed by paper checks.

Arguing against the ATM are several trends. First is how cashless a society this has become.

Sure, in the movies people are always toting silver briefcases stuffed full of neatly bound and stacked paper money. Most of us don’t want or need that much. Many of us can go weeks with our wallets full of credit and debit receipts but not a piece of green paper.

The near ubiquitous acceptance of credit and debit cards — even the Girl Scouts selling cookies at tables outside stores — renders physical cash an accessory rather than a necessity. As payment systems accessed through mobile devices proliferate, even credit and debit cards are looking at an uncertain future, perhaps one of decline.

But if people don’t need cash any more, do they need cash machines? Two reasons for their continued existence: They’ve been asked to do more than dispense cash, and they have greater capabilities than first-generation models.

Ever since their introduction, people have experimented with what else an ATM could do, such as sell postage stamps, bus passes, even ski-resort tickets. Some applications have stuck, many have faded. Their convenience, ease of use and sheer number suggest more such experiments.

Even limited to banking, though, the ATM has become more powerful and versatile. ATMs have long permitted deposits, albeit stuffed in an envelope to be gathered and read later. Now ATMs can read the deposited check itself and credit your account with the total on the spot.

Cash also will remain popular as long as there’s no “convenience fee” for spending it.

Credit and debit cards are a mixed blessing for retailers, who balance the convenience of not having to handle checks with the fees processors charge for handling plastic. If mobile payment systems (paying at the counter with my smart phone, or person-to-person transactions) come with lots of fees attached, the public will not enthusiastically dump a system that does not charge them for spending their own money.

You can make the argument that much of the world is ahead of the United States in advanced payment systems. But the U.S. already has a payment system consisting of options that are familiar, widely available and good enough for most people, situations and applications.

Cash will stick around for a while, which means ATMs will be around for a while, which unfortunately means that some people will continue in their attempts at withdrawing money from them not with a plastic card but by crowbar, chain attached to truck or an explosive device.

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at bill.virgin@yahoo.com.
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