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A new ATM robbery scheme troubles Ho Chi Minh City

A view of an ATM booth on Ho Chi Minh City's Dien Bien Phu Street where at least one robbery and one attempted robbery have taken place last month.
Photo by Tuan Anh.

After a brief yet bloody punch-up, the alleged would-be robbers ran away without any plunder, instead losing a hammer and screwdriver to their target.

Steven D., a 56-year-old American man who declined to reveal his last name, said his assailants were in their early-to-mid-twenties and trying to steal his motorbike.

It was after 10 p.m. on October 30, when Steven entered an ATM booth on Dien Bien Phu Street in District 1's Da Kao Ward to withdraw money. He parked his bike by the sidewalk where four ATM booths are located.

When he entered the ABBank booth and put his card in, he suddenly heard somebody outside the door.

"I saw him put something in the door like the lock." Steven said. "I pushed the door and it would not open. I guess he fastened the door with a screwdriver, but I didn't know what it was at the time.

"I couldn't open the door and we looked at each other face to face. I was shaking the door. I tried to kick the door, which was made of plastic so I couldn't break it."

While Steven was struggling with the young man, who he said was wearing a blue shirt, black pant and about 1.64 meters tall, another man "appeared from nowhere." Steven said the second man began trying to steal his motorbike, which he had locked.

"The door got very loose and one guy was still trying to hold the door while the other trying to unlock the motorbike," Steven said.

"I don't know what he was doing but [apparently] he was trying to break the lock."

Steven was finally able to open the door and his two attackers jumped on him.

Fending off blows from the men's fists and the hammer, Steven managed to fight back. But one of the men soon stabbed him with a screwdriver and the other went through his pockets trying to take whatever he could.

The hammer and the screwdriver Steven D., an American teacher and businessman in Ho Chi Minh City, said two alleged robbers used to lock him inside an ATM booth and attack him after he got out. Photo by Steven D.

"[But] I never went down to my knees. I could stand up, [albeit] with a lot of pain, immediately. I managed to throw the guy with the screwdriver down. I took the hammer from the other guy and hit the guy who was hitting me. Then they ran away," said Steven, who claimed that he had a military background in the US.

The two men headed for the Hang Xanh roundabout that leads to the Saigon Bridge, leaving behind the hammer, the screwdriver, a bleeding eye, and some minor injuries on Steven's body.

Steven said they were driving a brown or red Honda CUB50 with the first three license plate numbers of the 60Z.

Steven, who teaches English and runs a company in Ho Chi Minh City, never reported to the police on his case, but Lam Dong, a local paramilitary man tasked with overseeing the ATM corner where the incident occurred, confirmed Steven's story.

"Two young men were indeed attempting to rob a foreign man who was about to withdraw the money in the ABBank booth on the night of October 30," Don said.

"But he was far luckier than a Vietnamese woman three weeks earlier," Dong said.

On October 11, four men pretended to be strangers at the same ATM booth corner. Nguyen Thi Thanh Thuan felt safe about entering it with her motorbike on the sidewalk outside, locked.

Two of the men then stood at the booth door to trap Thuan while two others unlocked it. They left scot-free with the bike, VND13 million, and other important documents.

A senior official from the Ho Chi Minh City police force said locking victims inside ATM booths and robbing their bikes was a "totally new robbery ploy."

"The city police have dispatched a task force to investigate the cases to track down the culprits," he said.

But most people don't buy it.


Emergency call for help fails to move Vietnam metro cop

Thuan, the woman who was trapped inside the ATM booth, said she had called the police rapid response force, Unit 113, who had told her to call the nearest local police station for assistance.

The officer who took the call confirmed his response, saying he "did not hear panic in the caller's voice".

His boss Bui Van Lao, a senior officer with the unit, admitted that the policeman on duty had misjudged the urgency of the matter and did not deploy help in time.

Steven, the American victim, said he would never bother to report his most recent incident to the police based on his own experiences living here since 2003, which include several robberies.

"Whenever I go to the police station, their attitude is like: "˜Don't bother us,'" he said. He added that police he had tried to report crimes to in the past were defensive and aggressive and that the language barrier was a huge obstacle as most of his Vietnamese friends were too afraid to talk to the cops with him.

The Ho Chi Minh City Police newspaper of the municipal police department, said in a September article that the criminal activities had indeed decreased during the first nine months of this year with 3,945 cases reported.

But the paper admitted that dangerous crimes had not decreased with robberies and muggings listed among the most highly-recorded incidents.

However, in District 1, 140 robbery and muggings had been reported as of September this year, down 22.2 percent from the same period last year, the paper said, citing city police statistics.

Some police sources told Thanh Nien Weekly that such ATM trap incidents were actually very rare.

Dong, the Vietnamese paramilitary man, said on Wednesday afternoon he and he colleagues had been permanently stationed there around-the-clock after the two new ATM robbery schemes took place.

But Thanh Nien Weekly came back at around 11 p.m. on that day to find only a xe om (motorbike taxi) nearby.

"He [the paramilitary man] just left. He might come back but I have no idea when," the xe om driver said.

"But I don't think they are watching the ATM booths 24/7. Their job is to patrol the whole area."


Ho Chi Minh City police have urged banks to improve security at their ATM booths to prevent increasing robberies by installing more safety equipment and moving some from "dangerous" locations.

"Some banks have installed ATMs at sparsely populated areas because they did not undertake serious research on the issue. Most ATMs have no alarm systems or spy cameras," a police official in Tan Binh District said.

He said the district police have asked banks to set up these devices soon.

A police official in District 1, meanwhile, advised banks to relocate their ATMs and removing those from sparsely populated areas, or assign security officials.

An investigation by Thanh Nien found many ATMs customers could be easily targeted when withdrawing money at certain locations, especially at night.

At 11 p.m. on November 1, two Thanh Nien reporters stopped at an ATM outside the Hoa Lu Stadium in District 1 and noticed two men following them on a motorbike. They quickly fled after seeing the reporters cautiously look around.

Many ATMs are located under trees and in the dark, including those on Tu Xuong, Ngo Thoi Nhiem and Tran Quoc Thao streets. These booths could prove dangerous very late in the night.

Many residents told Thanh Nien every ATM should have the phone number of local police stations because they don't know who to call if they are troubled or robbed by thieves. (By Cong Nguyen Giang Phuong)

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