Reverse PIN Security Just a Myth

ATM Machine
The Truth About ATM Machine Reverse PIN Technology. Getty Images

Does typing in a reverse PIN at the bank ATM machine really call the police?

Since 2006, a raft of emails and social media posts have helpfully suggested that people being forced by robbers to withdraw cash from an ATM machine could summon the police by entering their PIN number in reverse order.

"If you should ever be forced by a robber to withdraw money from an ATM machine, you can notify the police by entering your Pin # in reverse," one widely circulated email reads.

So, let’s say you are able to actually do that – naturally and quickly – with a pistol sticking in your ribs during a robbery at your bank's automated teller machine. Will the police automatically be summoned to the crime scene?

No. In reality, the idea of a reverse PIN is just that - an idea whose time has not come, even though the technology exists. Here's the question: If the idea of a reverse PIN alert system sounds great, and it's already been invented, what's the holdup?

Reverse PIN Questioned by Government

Federal legislation signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2009 raised hope that reverse PIN technology, an attempt to provide more safety for consumers who use ATMs, might be put into use.

The Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009 mandated that the Federal Trade Commission study "the cost-effectiveness of making available at automated teller machines technology that enables a consumer that is under duress to electronically alert a local law enforcement agency that an incident is taking place..."

Banks interviewed by the FTC reported that they had never installed any type of emergency-PIN system on their ATM machines and had no plans to do so in the future.

The study, made public in April 2010, suggested that the reverse PIN system or alarm buttons would not stop or significantly reduce ATM robberies and could even “increase the danger to customers who are targeted by offenders.”

"While there may be some potential for decreasing ATM-related crime and injury, there is also the possibility that emergency-PIN systems will have little or no effect, or that they will even increase injury," the FTC's Bureau of Economics reported.

How is that possible?

Reverse PIN Opposed by Banks

The FTC study warned that the reverse PIN system might actually increase the physical danger to the victim because of the difficulties distressed customers may experience in using the system. Banks that cooperated by the FTC study said customers who fumble while trying to type in their reverse PIN face a "real risk" of personal harm.

"There are ... concerns that customers under stress may be unlikely to remember the reverse of their PIN, which may place them in greater danger should the perpetrator figure out what they are attempting to do and escalate the situation," Bank of America told the FTC.

So what is a customer to do in the event of a crime?

Comply, Wells Fargo's senior vice president for ATM and store strategy said. "If a crime is being committed, we believe the safest course of action is for a customer to comply with the demands of their attacker," he wrote to the FTC.

How Reverse PIN System Would Work

A reverse PIN system would allow distressed ATM customers with a bank card PIN of "1234," for example, to enter this number backward, "4321," and automatically send an electronic relay message to a dispatch center or the police, alerting them to the customer's location.

Bogus Reverse PIN Email

One of the most widely forwarded emails wrongly claiming the reverse PIN system is in use reads:

LIFE-SAVING information!!!

GOOD INFORMATION TO KNOW ABOUT.

PLEASE PASS THIS INFORMATION ON

THE RECENT TRAGEDY OF A YOUNG WOMAN BEING KIDNAPPED AND
EVENTUALLY KILLED; AFTER SHE HAD REPEATEDLY GIVEN THE KIDNAPPER A WRONG PIN TO HER ATM CARD. IF SHE KNEW THE METHOD BELOW, SHE COULD HAVE BEEN SAVED. SO I THINK IT IS IMPORTANT ENOUGH TO LET YOU KNOW!!!!!!!!!!!!!

IF YOU SHOULD EVER BE FORCED BY A ROBBER TO WITHDRAW MONEY FROM AN ATM MACHINE, YOU CAN NOTIFY THE POLICE BY ENTERING YOUR PIN # IN REVERSE.

FOR EXAMPLE IF YOUR PIN NUMBER IS 1234 THEN YOU WOULD PUT IN
4321.

THE ATM RECOGNIZES THAT YOUR PIN NUMBER IS BACKWARDS FROM THE ATM CARD YOU PLACED IN THE MACHINE. THE MACHINE WILL STILL GIVE YOU THE MONEY YOU REQUESTED, BUT UNKNOWN TO THE ROBBER, THE POLICE WILL BE IMMEDIATELY DISPATCHED TO HELP YOU.

THIS INFORMATION WAS RECENTLY BROADCAST ON FOX TV AND IT STATES THAT IT IS SELDOM USED BECAUSE PEOPLE DON'T KNOW IT EXISTS.

PLEASE PASS THIS ALONG.

Updated by Robert Longley