Rural retailers could vanish as ATM thieves strike for eighth time in Northern Ireland
Beleaguered rural retailers have warned that spiralling insurance costs could ultimately put them out of business following a recent spate of ATM thefts.
Retail NI boss Glyn Roberts said small, family-owned businesses feel like "targets" in their local communities, with many threatening to get rid of cash machines if the raids continue.
His comments follow confirmation by police that eight ATMs have been stolen in seven separate incidents in Northern Ireland so far this year, while a further heist was foiled in January.
They also come after the PSNI, which is "not putting a figure on the amount of money lost", said they believe that "several gangs" could be involved in the raids.
Mr Roberts told the Belfast Telegraph that the situation was "increasingly dire" with tens of thousands of pounds worth of damage being done to local retailers as a result of these thefts.
"You have damage to premises, disruption to trade and higher insurance premiums when a crime like this occurs - so it's the prefect storm for already struggling retailers," he said.
"Our members are extremely worried that they might see their insurance premiums rise following these sustained ATM attacks.
"There is a very real fear among members, both those who've been victims of this crime and those who have ATMs but who haven't yet been targeted.
"Rising insurance costs would be a further burden because our members already pay substantial premiums on insurance generally and I would be concerned for their livelihoods.
"A lot of ATM retailers already saw their rates bills rise by £4,000 to £8,000 a year as a result of losing the rural rate relief scheme so many are already struggling to pay their rates.
"On top of that, transaction charges are being levied... and what it will mean is that ATMs will be too costly and too dangerous for our members to have in their stores in the future."
Detective Chief Inspector David Henderson, who is leading the investigation, spoke at police headquarters following the latest theft of an ATM from outside a shop in Co Antrim.
A digger, which had been stolen from a nearby site, was used in the raid at the Nisa shop on Brook Street in Ahoghill which happened around 3.25am yesterday and caused considerable damaged to the building.
"Once again the public and business community have today learned of another ATM theft; of another business targeted by these brazen thieves who have struck at the heart of a rural community," Mr Henderson said.
"As in all of these ATM thefts, the actions of these criminals have not only caused immediate financial harm to the business that was targeted, but they have understandably caused fear in the community and impacted upon a vital service many local people rely on.
"In areas where ATMs have been stolen, local people may have to travel considerable distances to find an alternative way to withdraw money and the livelihoods of the business owners who have worked for years to build up their businesses is also jeopardised.
"There's also the loss of very expensive machinery, which cause delays in production, damage to the local economy and the likelihood of criminal finances being redirected back into funding further organised crime or terrorism."
Mr Henderson said police are "actively looking at it being several gangs involved" but said there was "no evidence paramilitaries were involved", although they may be skimming off "some of the criminal assets".
Shop owner Walter Millar - who marked 30 years of being in business yesterday - said the latest ATM to be stolen "will certainly be missed" by the community in Ahoghill but there is now "a fear" about replacing it after the theft.
He admitted that he initially thought a call about the theft was an April Fools' Day prank.
"From what I can tell, they've used a digger that they've taken from a building site down the road, ripped the machine out, used a people carrier with the roof cut off to get the cash machine into it and then drove away," Mr Millar said.
"The wall of the kitchen at the back of the shop has been ripped out and there's a fair amount of damage done, but we won't know the extent of the damage until we get inside.
"It's been a difficult time, given the current economic climate, and things like this doesn't help at all."
DUP leader Arlene Foster - who recently warned that the ATM raiders would end up killing someone - met ACC Barbara Gray and the PSNI's ATM task force yesterday.
"The loss of ATMs across Northern Ireland has been a devastating blow for many rural areas and particularly for the businesses who have seen such destruction of their premises," she told press after the meeting.
"There is also the cost to construction firms with damaged and stolen plant as well the as the cost to shop owners.
"We have been encouraged by actions taken by the police in recent weeks but people would like to see results and ultimately those responsible brought to justice."
There were four ATM thefts in February - in Moira, Antrim (two) and Omagh - and three last month, in Dungannon, Newtownabbey and Irvinestown.