Teen's Slaying Prompts Talk of ATM Duress Code

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    NEWSLETTERS

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    A man uses a Bank of America ATM.

    The slaying of a 17-year-old girl after a robbery attempt has city officials discussing an ATM "PIN duress code."

    Here's how it would work: an ATM user being forced to withdraw cash would be able to enter a secret code on the ATM's number pad. The code would trigger a security system and alert authorities that the person is under duress.

    Councilman Greig Smith's motion asks the Los Angeles Police Department and the City Attorney's Office to report on the systems that banks currently have in place  to protect customers, and to assess the feasibility of implementing a PIN duress system. 

    His proposal stems from the July 24 slaying of a Los Feliz girl.

    Lily Burk was abducted while she was running an errand for her mother at Southwestern Law School near Koreatown. Her killer slashed her throat after she made several unsuccessful attempts to withdraw  cash from ATMs using her credit card, which was not set up with a PIN.

    A parolee, Charlie Samuel, has been charged with her murder.

    "Requiring banks to install some sort of PIN duress system would ensure that ATM users could safely and covertly alert law enforcement that they are  being robbed," Smith said.

    Smith said one software company already offers an application allowing  ATM users to alert police of a forced cash withdrawal if they enter their PIN  in reverse order. He said banks can purchase the application at a cost of $25 per ATM machine.

    Some home and property alarm systems already have duress PINs where the last two digits of the reset code are switched around, triggering a silent alarm.

    A 2004 Forbes article, looks at the origin of the duress security system. It was developed by Chicago inventor Joseph Zingher, who called his company Zi-Cubed.

    Zingher, a former member of the U.S. Army Military Police, got the idea for SafetyPIN in 1994, when he needed cash in a bad part of town. He paid $500 to a computer science major to write the simple code that would recognize reversed, inverted or otherwise altered PIN as a distress signal, and instructed the teller machine to call the cops. He filed for a patent the same year.

    A bill introduced in the Illinois General Assembly would make the system mandatory on ATMs in the state.

    In an e-mail to NBCLA.com, Zingher said the company has had contracts with small banks to provide the software.

    "But they didn't run their own ATM networks and the data processors who ran them didn't want to provide it," Zingher said in the e-mail.

    Zingher said the software has three variations.

    If the PIN is reversible, such as 1234, then the code would be 4321.

    If the number is a palindrome, then the user types in the PIN inside-out. For example, 1221 would be 2112.

    And, if the PIN consists of four identical numbers, then the alarm would be a plus-one for all digits. For example, 9999 would become 0000, and the emergency code for PIN 1111 would be 2222.