A common conspiracy theory that has been circulating the internet for almost a decade is that entering a PIN number backwards into an ATM machine will call the police. Thus, if someone were forced to withdraw money against his or her will, he or she could use this secret code to alert the cops for help. Part of the reason that this conspiracy theory is so popular is because it is seemingly helpful; people will readily share helpful information with their friends and family, especially if it involves their safety.
According to Snopes, a website founded by Barbara and David P. Mikkelson which aims to debunk false rumors, this conspiracy meme originated in 2006 (Snopes). The ATM safety feature was a real idea, produced by a businessman named Joseph Zingher and developed by the Federal Trade Commission, but it was never implemented. Some individuals, under the impression that it was available, spread news about it through emails. These emails became chain messages which went viral, and continue to be forwarded to this day.
While the conspiracy has lost credibility since most people have learned of its falsity, and there are little to no websites dedicated to promoting it, there are still many people who believe it. David Emery, a writer for the informational website About.com provides actual examples of multiple versions of the conspiracy email in his article, “Use Reverse PIN # to Contact Police in ATM Emergency?”. The choppy sentence structure and flawed grammar in the second email, including the phrase “it exist” rather than “it exists,” show that the person who sent this message is most likely not highly educated.
The conspiracy can also be found on multiple social networking sites, including the popular image-sharing website Pinterest (founded by Paul Sciarra, Evan Sharp, and Ben Silbermann). This pin, with the caption “Pass this along!!!! ATM PIN number reversed!!!” exemplifies the conspiracy. Clicking on the pin opens a .jpg picture rather than an article with verified information, revealing that whoever pinned or re-pinned the theory did not know to only trust valid sources. (Again, this might reveal a lack of education among the theory’s believers.) The same bogus picture can be found circulating Twitter (founded by Jack Dorsey), as in this young man named Neil Roberts’ tweet, which has been re-tweeted seven times and favorited twice. These users’ belief in the conspiracy theory reveals a major flaw of Pinterest, Twitter and other social networking sites: these sites spread information by word of mouth, and not with trustworthy sources.
The ATM conspiracy theory may be different than others in that it can definitely be disproved, but it nevertheless qualifies as a conspiracy theory by definition. Goertzel recounts Pigden’s definition of conspiracy as “a secret plan on the part of a group to influence events in part by covert action” (2011). The ATM PIN reversal rumor fits this description, because it involves a group– the Federal Trade Commission– and its efforts to create a “secret” trick to prevent robbery. Believing the ATM theory could be dangerous, because typing wrong numbers into the machine could lock the account and cause the robber to become impatient and violent. The potential consequences of believing this conspiracy theory illustrate Blackwell’s belief that memes are “a scary idea indeed” (1999).
Blackmore, Susan J. “Chapter 1. Strange Creatures, Chapter 14. Memes of the New Age, Chapter 2. Universal Darwinism,.” The Meme Machine. Oxford [England: Oxford UP, 1999. N. pag. Print.
Emery, David. “Use Reverse PIN # to Contact Police in ATM Emergency?” ATM PIN Number Reversal. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Oct. 2013.
Goertzel, Ted (2011) “The conspiracy meme,” Skeptical Inquirer, 35(1).
“PINned Hopes.” Snopes.com: Reverse PIN Panic Code. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Oct. 2013.