The Dangers of Drive-Up/Drive-Through Services - Watch Your Back: How to Avoid the Most Dangerous Moments in Daily Life (2016)

Watch Your Back: How to Avoid the Most Dangerous Moments in Daily Life (2016)

Chapter 5 The Dangers of Drive-Up/Drive-Through Services

Drive-up or drive-through services include fast food restaurants, video rental machines, the Automated Teller Machine (ATM), and even dry cleaners. Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of utilizing drive-up or drive-through services can be the very distractions required by the process of placing an order or operating the necessary vending machine. But the very mindset of “quick and convenient” can promote skipping over the most basic safety concerns.

If a trip to the dry cleaners seems like the least likely scenario to be interrupted by crime, then you’re probably not old enough to remember when cars could only be locked using a physical metal key. If we could turn back the clock or visit the files of nearly any newspaper (sorry, no Internet searches allowed, or for that matter no Internet), there would be plenty of stories to read containing the phrase “car stolen while owner makes a quick stop at (fill in the blank) leaving the engine running.” I recently spent rush hour parked in front of my favorite dry cleaners keeping track of how many people parked by the front door and left their engine running. I also recorded how many locked their cars with a remote, locked their cars with a key or by manually engaging the door lock, or left the car unlocked with or without the windows closed. Out of twenty-one patrons, two actually went inside with the engine running, one of which was able to lock the doors just the same. Eight patrons did not lock the car doors and the remaining eleven each utilized the electronic door locks. As we have seen with the attraction to the smart phone, electronic devices such as keyless remotes are so easy to use, the practice quickly becomes habitual. “Lock your car and take your keys” is motherly common sense but it’s easy to forget what’s truly at stake.

Most people think of the value of a stolen car for its resale value in whole or in parts, but the stolen vehicle is the number one getaway car for all sorts of crime. After a crime is committed with a stolen vehicle and it has been disposed of soon after, providing the police with a description and license plate number often becomes useless. Stolen vehicles are also used as “skeleton keys” or rams. Have you ever noticed the groups of nondescript posts in front of a store entrance?

Gun stores and convenience stores that contain an ATM often install barriers such as cement-filled pipes sunk as far as four feet below ground to prevent vehicles from crashing through security doors and gates. This process often leaves the vehicle wrecked and disabled, but a second vehicle is waiting for the perpetrators to make their escape.

Your personal safety is at risk but so are your passengers, including small children strapped into a car seat. If the car is abandoned while you just run inside, a smash and grab can overcome any locked doors if valuables are in reach. There is always the threat of a common robbery of money, but let’s take a look at how planning or Preemptive Behavioral Response can serve to limit exposure to common threats.

The first defense is to choose the location of the business you wish to visit. It is not unusual for small modules or strip centers to contain a gasoline station and convenience store with a dry cleaner's or fast-food restaurant either connected to or serviced by the same parking areas, exits and, entrances.


Gun stores (and for that matter convenience stores that contain an ATM) often install barriers such as cement-filled pipes sunk as far as four feet below ground to prevent vehicles from being used to ram through security doors and gates. This process often leaves the vehicle wrecked and disabled but the plan typically includes a second vehicle waiting for the perpetrators to make their escape. Photo by the author, courtesy of Boyert Shooting Center.

The typical convenience store is a magnet for trouble almost by design. By selling alcohol, cigarettes, snacks, and providing pay telephones and restrooms, the gasoline station/convenience store becomes a home away from home for the indigent and an ideal staging area for crime. Keep in mind that where you go dictates with whom you interact. Think of it this way: If all you want is a gallon of milk or a fresh crease in your business suit, why go to a bar? Choosing to patronize businesses more specific to your needs with no obvious connection to, or in the vicinity of, establishments that offer mood-altering drugs, legal or otherwise, will decrease your likelihood of being the victim of a crime.

Avoiding trouble during drive-up or drive-through services begins with the very same technique as when making a fuel stop. Take a lap around the parking lot and inventory of who is on the grounds. Is anyone watching you? People should be in motion at a drive-through or fast food restaurant. Anyone who is standing still should stand out.

A good example of an incident that could have been avoided by checking who was about took place in Omaha, Nebraska, in July of 2012. Video from the store parking lot distributed by Crime Stoppers shows a man sitting on the curb of the sidewalk bordering the parking spaces directly in front of the building. Five parking spaces are visible in the video clip, all of them empty. It is nighttime and we could assume that there are many parking spots to choose from. A woman drives in and parks her car in front of the video rental machine near to where the man is seated.


The distraction of using a vending machine in public can present security concerns in direct proportion to location and time of day. Any vending machine located near a drug store, liquor store, or any establishment that sells alcohol means sooner or later you’re going to cross paths with someone who is inebriated or in need of drugs or drink. Vending machines that require special attention, like viewing with the aide of a curtain, could further increase risk. Note the support columns nearby that a perpetrator could hide behind in order to set up an ambush.

As broadcast by KETV, the local ABC affiliate, anchor Rob McCartney reports that the man was “Waiting for a victim. Eventually one drives up.”1 While the woman is looking for a movie on the vending machine, the man comes up behind and says he has a gun. The man is seen walking her back to her car, maintaining close contact, and reportedly demanding all her money. After taking the money the man walks away and the woman drives off.2

The video from the parking lot camera was obviously edited for time because in the opening scene the parking lot is deserted except for the man. When the crime takes place, four of the five visible parking spaces are filled including the victim’s car. The place of business was a drugstore so perhaps his intent could have been not only to rob someone who would be distracted by working the vending machine but also trying his luck in obtaining prescription drugs, whichever opportunity presented itself first. Today’s big drugstores are really variety stores but anyone seen leaving with a paper bag (rather than a plastic bag in which dry goods are typically dispatched) could become a target. To be on the safe side, always ask for a shopping bag to cover the telltale white paper pharmacy bag.

In this case, cash was the target even though such vending machines accept payment strictly by credit card. This would be the reason why the perpetrator was seen walking the victim back to her car. We don’t actually see her open the car door because the purpose of the broadcast likely was to provide a description of the perpetrator to the public. But it seems reasonable to assume the woman had taken out her credit card to use the vending machine and left her purse in the car. Or, perhaps she had told the robber she had left her money in the car as a ruse strictly to gain time, hoping someone might intervene. Ultimately, the payment appears it may have come from her jeans pocket.

If her purse was inside the car, one has to wonder why he even bothered with approaching the woman at all once she was busy in front of the vending machine. He could have grabbed the purse and run with the same ultimate result. Maybe his original plan was to abduct the woman but something changed his mind. If the woman had pulled up while the parking area was empty rather than as busy as it appeared to be in the latter part of the video, the man could have easily taken her with him.

That the man was spending time alone in the parking lot should have been a red flag to anyone watching the cameras from inside the store. Dressed shabbily and wearing a T-shirt tied around his head would indicate his station in life, if not his state of mind. It’s not worth questioning why this man was allowed to loiter, for it is our job to survive and prevail no matter what.

Thanks to movies, television, and video games it’s easy to imagine the woman drawing a gun, beating the man up with karate, or choking the man out with jiu-jitsu. But once a fight starts it’s rarely easy to control the outcome or predict what will happen along the way because you have no control over your opponent’s thoughts or actions. Let’s focus instead on our own actions and see how much we can script before last-ditch efforts and chance play a part.

The list of Preemptive Behavioral Response for a visit to the movie vending machine begins with surveillance. Who is in the parking lot? Judge any bystander like a suitor asking permission to take your daughter on her first date. A man with a white T-shirt on his head sitting on the curb rings up the following options: Come back another time or find a different vending machine. Or, call the store and tell them there is a man outside that makes you feel unsafe. If you are already out of your car when you discover the man loitering, go directly inside the store and look for a security officer or ask for the manager. How you are treated should determine if you ever shop there again and feel free to tell them so if necessary.

The practice of circling the parking lot and looking for anyone who might do you harm should become automatic, habitual, and maybe even an art form in itself. As a result of my first training in searching for intruders whether indoors or out, the words of the instructor still ring in my ears today: “If you do not see anyone or anything out of place, look again. This time not for where they are but for where they would be hiding.”

In a sense, looking for someone in the most likely hiding places is not that much different than watching for an opening to turn left across oncoming traffic, specifically at night. Initially, your eyes will pick up the headlights of each car moving in your direction. But don’t let your eyes become numb in recognition to anything that is not illuminated. If all you are seeing is the headlights you will miss the one car traveling with its lights off. And that’s the one that will hit you. The lights will find your eyes in periphery almost automatically. The key is to focus between the lights so the glare does not blind you. When searching space your eyes will be drawn quickly to movement just the same as they were drawn to the headlights. In the meantime, be sure to scan the entire geometry of your field of view and consciously check obvious places to hide.

In an effort to develop search habits it won’t take long to develop a standard checklist of hiding places. Think of it as a collection of game pieces from a Monopoly board. Mailbox, the edges of a car body and negative space between the wheels, support column, vending machine, building corner, entry door opening with nobody going in or out indicating someone out of view was nevertheless in range of the electronic eye.

Before going further with drive-up or drive-through services, here’s three simple words to remember about walk-up ATMs: don’t use them. It’s hard enough to generate a safe barrier when you’re on line inside a vehicle, let alone stay vigilant while answering questions from a machine that is about to belch out the number-one crime magnet in the world, cash money.

As an aside, if you ever walk in to do business at a bank and the tellers are not behind a bullet-resistant barrier, leave. Some years ago, banks in Northwest Houston were victimized by one robbery after another. Word on the street was the same gang was responsible for each hit. The wave of robberies seemed to begin after several new bank branches were built to service a boom in population growth. On my first visit to the newest branch in my area, I noticed the teller windows were nothing more than open, unprotected counters. Aware of robberies that were happening more frequently in other parts of the city, I pointed this out to the bank manager. It was soon after that this very bank was robbed, along with nearly every one of the banks along the Northwest Freeway, whether they were freestanding or inside of a supermarket. Some of the robberies were violent, resulting in personal injury. Afterward, each of these banks reopened with bullet-resistant partitions. Some of the banks hired armed guards until the perpetrators were caught and the crime wave ceased.

When you’re on line inside a vehicle, keep the doors locked and don’t open the window until you have to. Stay far enough back from the car in front of you so that you can turn and drive out of line quickly in one motion without having to back up or make more than one turn of the wheel. The rule of thumb for guaranteeing that you are in the proper position is to make sure you can see the bottom of the rear tires of the car in front of you.

When using a drive-up ATM there are a few simple things that can be done to reduce risk, some of which are meant to limit elapsed time for the processes, i.e., exposure. Before arriving at the ATM site, remove the debit or bank card from your purse or wallet and leave it within reach. Circle the parking lot or general area and look for anyone on foot or waiting in a parked car. Approach the ATM but stop short for a moment and scan anyone moving by using the rearview and left and right side mirrors. Roll down the window when you are in front of the machine, keeping in mind that you can get closer to the machine by folding in the side-view mirror. Check the condition of the ATM by quickly scanning for dents or pry marks. Your eyes can move extremely quickly so we’re not talking about much time here. If there is a sticker saying the ATM is approved for service that looks temporary or not genuine, the machine could have been tampered with and the reader may be compromised.

The moment before you put your card into the slot, inspect the interior of the slot itself. Any extra material inside the slot may indicate a pirate reader has been installed. Current machinery dictates the card is swiped and not retained so once you have worked the card through the reader you can bring it back into the vehicle. There is no need to spend time putting it back into a wallet and then putting the wallet back into a purse or shifting in the seat to stow it inside a pocket. Before pulling out make sure the driver’s side window is at least more than halfway up.

Know where you are going when you pull away from the ATM window. If you have a choice of direction, such as straight ahead to a more distant exit or nearby to an exit where you will have to wait in line before turning on to a road, take the more distant exit. It is simply preferable to keep moving away from the ATM in order to put distance between yourself and anyone that might have been lying in wait nearby. This will also make it more difficult for someone to follow you without being detected.

It’s not unusual for the ATM to be used for purposes other than to get cash. It’s a quick, convenient way to check an account balance or make a deposit. The problem with using an ATM for services other than getting cash is that all ATM transactions appear to be the same until the conclusion. Therefore, everything that marks you as a target for robbery takes place before it is ever obvious that you are not there to make a withdrawal. The following is an example.

According to a September 9, 2015, report in The Herald newspaper of Rock Hill, South Carolina, a man threatened a woman at a local ATM with a gun and tried to take her money. The man was on foot wearing black clothing with his face covered when he approached the driver’s side window. When the woman screamed, he told her to stop and put his hand over the return slot. But no money came out because she was there to deposit a check. The robber fired a round into the air, either for the purpose of intimidation or out of frustration, as he ran to a getaway car waiting nearby.3

Now let’s analyze how the event could have escalated and how it could have been avoided. Personally, I don’t trust an ATM to accept and properly record a deposit. I like to have face-to-face verification as well as a receipt. Maybe the woman was in too much of a rush to get out of her car or just used to doing everything electronically. That the incident took place at about 8:30 p.m., long after the bank had closed and she was comfortable with an automated transaction, may support the latter. But if the woman had only taken the extra time to go inside the bank during normal business hours, she likely would not have been a victim. His MO was to watch for someone to drive up to the ATM and by the report not pull in tight against the machine. Remember, he was able to reach in and cover the return slot with his hand.

We also learned that a getaway car was waiting. This means the woman did not circle the building and look for a parked car with someone inside. Ultimately, the woman was very lucky because it appears that cash was the robber’s only goal. That he was armed and may have had an accomplice in the getaway car leaves open the possibility the woman could have been kidnapped, threatened, or even tortured to give up her personal identification number (PIN), allowing the robber to access her account. Her vehicle could have been used for additional crimes or profit from its sale and worst of all, the woman could have been killed or sold into slavery.

If the vulnerability inherent in using drive-up or drive-through services seems overwhelming, the fact is that this is nothing new. It’s just that we’ve come to rely on outside help to provide our own security and a modern vehicle transmitting relatively little road noise could draw just about anyone into a false sense of security. Consider the efficiency provided by the cars we drive. If we did not have electronic door locks, each individual door would have to be locked manually. A habit of checking the latch visually would quickly develop. The inconvenience of a lone driver having to get out and crank up a rear window might also make us more aware. A reaction such as “Damn it, I went to the trouble of stopping halfway down the driveway to get out and go around to the rear passenger side window just to crank it up and make sure the button was down,” just might make us more determined to watch out for our own safety.

A recent book signing for The Shooter’s Bible Guide to Home Defense morphed into a “town hall” meeting of sorts at which I answered questions about specific safety concerns. One young couple ran a business servicing vending machines all over the city of Houston. Their primary concern was being robbed when they were collecting from the coin boxes. If you think operating a vending machine is distracting, imagine the attention it takes to open the machine, restock it, and reset the internal workings. The first answer is to provide a second (or third) set of eyes.

Consider the origin of the phrase, “riding shotgun.” When horse-drawn carriage was the primary mode of transportation, standard practice was for the driver to control a team of horses. The attention and physical labor involved in motivating and steering as many as ten horses over rough ground left little opportunity for scanning the surroundings for trouble, let alone handling a weapon. Security was the primary job of the man sitting next to him armed with a rifle, handgun, or shotgun. The shotgun was the preferred force multiplier because its scatter of “shot” made up for accuracy that was lacking in most guns of the day. It is important to remember, this was the time before the science of reactive bullets, such as hollow points that expand, acting to increase the wound canal and speeding up the elapsed time before bleed out. Even a weapon with as many as six shots available before reloading might not be capable of providing the same amount of “ventilation” as a shotgun.

Riding shotgun in today’s world need not be as obvious as hiring a cowboy with a shotgun on his lap. Simply having someone else with you decreases your odds of being targeted, especially if each party is acting in a vigilant manner. If your partner is texting or talking on the phone they might as well not be there. If one of you have a cell phone and at least appear to be videotaping your trip to the vending machine, that might also serve as a deterrent. Be aware that if one or both of you are armed you still need to offer the body language of being vigilant.

I recently witnessed a woman holding her small dog while accessing a DVD vending machine located outside of a drugstore. The little yapper may or may not have been capable of a meaningful bite but its barking would at least alert the woman when to run. In addition, allow me to point out one other aspect of the surveillance video from the robbery of the woman at the movie vending machine in the drugstore parking lot. The perpetrator’s actions and body language was extremely low-key as he approached the woman and convinced her to move back to her car, reportedly under threat of being shot. Making it look as though he knew his victim and was simply walking her back to her car was a necessity in order for him to pull off the robbery without attracting attention. I doubt the perpetrator in this case would have chosen the woman with the little dog in her arms for precisely this reason.

Preemptive Behavioral Response for Drive-Up/Drive-Through Services


Consider the location of the stores and banks that you frequent.

Ask yourself:

Does it also sell liquor or cigarettes?

Is it adjacent to a business that sells liquor or cigarettes?

Drive through the parking area and take notice of who is in attendance.

Ask yourself:

Is anyone waiting around for no apparent reason?

Is anyone in the area dressed inappropriately, such as covering their face or wearing heavy clothes on a warm day, sunglasses on a cloudy day, etc.?

Is there a car parked nearby with a driver inside waiting for no apparent reason?

What structures could be used to hide behind?

If you were playing hide and seek where would you hide?

When you park your car turn off the engine, lock the doors, and take your keys.

Do not leave a child unattended in the car.

When on line for service from inside your car, stay far enough behind the car in front of you so that you can see the rear wheels. This will allow you to maneuver out of line.

At the Bank

Do not use an ATM for making a deposit or checking a balance.

No matter your purpose or intention, in the eyes of a criminal your presence at the ATM will always signal a cash withdrawal.

When visiting a bank lobby:

Are the tellers behind bullet-resistant glass?

If not, the bank is more attractive to robbery than other banks that are more secure.

Do not use a walk-up ATM.

Before driving up to an ATM, circle the facility and look for anyone that is on foot or waiting inside a parked car.

If you are in line for the ATM, stay back from the car in front of you so that you can maneuver quickly out of line.

Have your card out and ready before reaching the ATM.

Pull in the side mirror so you can get as close as possible to the slots and keypad without damaging your car.

Look around.

Leaving your car in gear with a foot on the brake is a double-edged sword. If there are pedestrians in the area, leaving in a panic may result in hitting an innocent passerby.

Check the condition of the ATM. If it looks roughed up, a pirate card reader may have been installed.


Whenever you are in line, even waiting at a stoplight, maintain enough distance from the car in front of you so that you can turn and drive out of line quickly to escape trouble without having to back up or make more than one turn of the wheel. A rule of thumb is to make sure you can see some portion of the rear tires of the vehicle in front of you.

If there is an inspection sticker that is too obvious or does not appear genuine, a pirate card reader may have been installed.

If the transaction does not go through for any reason, check your balance as soon as possible to see if your data has been compromised.

After you swipe your card, place it inside the car but do not take the time or attention to return it to your wallet or purse at this time.

Look around.

It’s natural to want to count the money dispensed by the machines but an ATM, especially one connected directly to a bank, is highly accurate and regulated. In the event of any irregularity, the only people that can help are inside the bank or on the telephone so drive off as soon as you have the money and/or receipt in your hands.

Drive off in a direction that offers the least resistance. Choose a path that keeps you moving and allows you to exit to the street quickly.

If you are picking up a prescription at a drugstore that also sells all manner of dry goods, make sure to ask for a bag used for general merchandise. A white paper bag typically used to hold prescription drugs can attract the wrong attention.

If you are going to use a vending machine located on the exterior of a business exposed to the parking lot, choose only the busier hours to do so. No one should be standing or sitting around waiting.

Take someone with you to watch your back while you manipulate the machine and make your choices.

Remain vigilant and demonstrate body language bordering on arrogance that indicates awareness of your surroundings.