People have to be more alert at ATMs, says Reana Steyn, the ombudsman for banking services. Picture: REUTERS/SIPHIWE SIBEKO
People have to be more alert at ATMs, says Reana Steyn, the ombudsman for banking services. Picture: REUTERS/SIPHIWE SIBEKO

Accepting help from a stranger at an ATM is never a good idea.

That "helpful" stranger could be a fraudster who helps himself to everything in your account - without you even realising it.

That's what happened to teacher assistant Nicole Matshaya a few weeks ago when she went to draw money from a Nedbank ATM at a petrol station in Wynberg, Cape Town, en route to work.

On arrival at the ATM at about 6.30am, Matshaya says, she waited for a man who was counting cash that he seemed to have just withdrawn. After he left, she inserted her Standard Bank card into the ATM and entered her PIN before she noticed an unusual message on the screen, asking for her cellphone number.

"I was confused and then the man came and said: 'These banks sometimes do this when you aren't using your own bank's ATM.' He started pressing buttons. But nothing happened and my card seemed to be stuck in the machine.

"I panicked and tried to cancel the transaction to get my card, but nothing was happening. The ATM wasn't returning my card."

Matshaya says she doesn't know when the stranger left her side or precisely how many minutes she stood at the ATM before she started receiving SMS notifications of withdrawals from her account.

"It couldn't have been even 10 minutes," she says. First R4,000 was withdrawn; a minute later R1,000; five minutes later a transaction of R640; and then a transaction for R180 - while she stood helplessly, watching her phone and the ATM.

"I searched the numbers on the ATM, but I had no airtime. A petrol attendant told me to quickly go buy airtime across the road and to stop my card. But the money was already gone.

"I was shaking. I went and bought airtime but couldn't put it in my phone. I had to get to work - school starts at 7.30am - so I left. After I arrived at work, around 7am, I reported the fraud to Standard Bank," Matshaya says.

But she was told the fraud was carried out with her card and her PIN and she ought to have stopped the card and reported it stolen sooner.

Standard Bank spokesperson Ross Linstrom says it sounds like Matshaya was "shoulder surfed" - someone obtained her PIN by peering over her shoulder at the ATM - and that her card was then stolen by sleight of hand, leaving her under the impression it had been retained by the ATM.

"I thought my card was in the machine. I didn't know it was stolen," she says. "Why would I report a fraud before I even knew I had become a victim? I only realised it when I got the SMSes."

According to Standard Bank, the fraudulent transactions from her account took place between 6.41am and 6.47am at an ATM and Pick n Pay Express in Rosmead Avenue, 800m from where she was at the time.

Had she realised her card had been stolen, she would have had seven minutes to report it before the first transaction took place.

"What if I hadn't had my phone with me, or if my battery was dead or if I was too afraid to use it at a petrol station opposite a busy bus and taxi rank?" asked Matshaya.

A letter to her from Standard Bank states that the bank has concluded its investigation and could not find any wrongdoing on the bank's part. "The transactions were performed either by you, or a person or persons unknown to you or the bank. The disputed transactions took place before the card was stopped. Standard Bank was not the beneficiary of the proceeds of the unauthorised transactions. In view of the foregoing, we regrettably advise that the bank will not reimburse you."

Matshaya says it doesn't seem fair - she wasn't the beneficiary of the funds either, and wasn't reckless with her PIN or card.

She says her only hope may be camera footage at one or both of the petrol stations, proving where she was at the time of the transactions.

But Reana Steyn, the ombudsman for banking services, says that such footage will only show that the consumer was the victim of a fraud. It won't prove maladministration or negligence on the part of the bank.

ATM fraud of this nature is not usual, Steyn says. ATM fraudsters either steal your card or swap it with another card issued by your bank. You only realise much later that the card you're using isn't yours.

Matshaya's card was apparently stolen from under her nose, but without her PIN is useless to fraudsters. Steyn says that's where negligence comes in. "People have to be more alert at ATMs, because this happens."

Matshaya says she intends lodging a complaint with the ombudsman's office.

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