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Going to ATM at night? Beware of teen robbers

(ran NS, S editions of TAMPA BAY & STATE)

Jeffrey Flynn had heard the tales of Florida crime long before he visited Tampa in January. It took only a few hours for the state's reputation to become Flynn's reality.

As he withdrew money from an automated teller machine outside Mercantile Bank on W Kennedy Boulevard, several teenagers in a car pulled up behind Flynn. One stepped out, showed a gun and demanded money.

Flynn was in shock, but he handed over a gold bracelet, a Rolex and $200. A month later in Connecticut, Flynn is still amazed by what happened. He had been careful to find a machine in a well-lit area. He had looked around before he got out of his car.

"I was very cautious," he said Friday. "I didn't imagine anyone being so brazen as to rob me."

It might be little consolation, but Flynn has had plenty of company.

Since Dec. 31, almost 20 robberies have occurred at ATMs in Tampa. Most have occurred between 5:30 p.m. and 7 a.m. at machines alongside bank branches, authorities said. Many branches have been targeted more than once. A Barnett Bank machine at 4545 N Himes Ave., for instance, has been hit four times since New Year's Eve.

Tampa police think teens are responsible for most of the robberies.

"We've found we have not just one group of juveniles, but maybe a couple of groups," police spokesman Steve Cole said. "Basically, they steal cars for fun, and now they've extended the fun to robbing people at ATMs."

Elizabeth McNamara, 33, of Tampa became the latest victim Thursday night. She was using the ATM at NationsBank, 2001 E Fowler Ave., when a car pulled up, Cole said. A man got out, put a gun in McNamara's face and demanded money.

Overall, police say people simply should refrain from using ATMs after dark. But if that's impossible, they suggest people exercise these safety measures:

Don't go to the machines alone.

Use areas where there is a lot of activity and traffic, such as outside a 24-hour supermarket.

Check the area carefully. Look for machines that are well-lit or on busy streets.

Finish your business as quickly as possible.

"When you go to an ATM, look (around) like a robber would look," Cole said. "(Think), if I were a robber, would I stake out this ATM?"

Ellison Clary, spokesman for NationsBank, a target of three Tampa robberies, said bank officials also are frustrated.

"We right now are reviewing various ways to make our machines safer to use, although we really haven't hit on some definite moves to make," he said. "There are all sorts of provisions that you consider: uniform lighting, size and type of shrubbery, visibility. . . . You like to have ATMs on the side of a building that is well-lighted and visible to a lot of people."

Cole said he knew of no instances in which people were harmed during the robberies.

"Most people are just giving up the money," he said. "Which is probably their best bet."

Several robbery victims said Friday that it had changed their whole outlook.

"I'm very uncomfortable, even in my own town," Flynn said. "The bottom line is, you can't protect yourself. It takes just two minutes for it to happen. I could have just as easily been shot there as been robbed."

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