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What I did when an ATM in Colombia ate my money

In all my years of travelling, I’ve never had this particular fear come true: that an ATM would eat my money. It had occurred to me over the years, inputting my personal bank details in random machines huddled in trash-filled alcoves. dodging puke outside of train stations to guess at my PIN on upside down keypads. But the banks have a great racket going, charging high, arbitrary fees at both ends to spit out your cash. The whole system was working well (mostly for the banks, sorta for me) until I was in Medellin recently and a Bancolombia ATM ate my money. So here are some tips on what to do if an ATM in Colombia eats your cash (and how I got my money back).

Bancolombia ATM screen after failing to output cash. The text on the screen translate to English as: "We allow ourselves to inform you that this ATM is out of service."
The text on the screen translates to: "We allow ourselves to inform you that this ATM is out of service."

A Bancolombia ATM at Santa Fe Mall ate my money.

Santa Fe Mall in Medellin is a short walk away from Go Living & Suites (you can read my review of that digital nomad accommodation here: Factory Lofts or Go Living Suites in Medellin? ) The Jumbo grocery store probably has the best selection in the area. I’d stopped by on a Sunday before my usual livestream, and I wanted to pick up some cash. On the ground floor of the mall, there are a few banks and money exchange shops. There’s a long row of Bancolombia ATMs outside of a branch (closed on Sundays). There wasn’t anybody else at the machines. I walked up to one that was flashing green, which means it’s working, inserted my bank card, input my details, said ok to the exorbitant fee, and the machine started making that whirring sound when it’s counting money. The cash dispenser was vibrating with anticipation. And then nothing. It just stopped. The green light disappeared. A red light appeared by the cash slot. The cover didn’t open. The screen displayed a message that the machine was now out-of-service.

The next day, my bank account showed a withdrawal. Over a hundred dollars. Gone.

Or was it?

Document everything you can if you use an ATM and it fails to spit out your cash.

Searching around online, I discovered I wasn’t the first person this has happened to. I didn’t bother trying to go to the Bancolombia branch the next day. There was also a phone number on the machine to call if you had problems, but I didn’t figure my Spanish was up to that task. So I immediately contacted my bank and explained what happened. I had the time and place, as well as photos of the machine that showed its identification number, and all the info on the withdrawal I made later the same day that actually worked (from a different bank (at Oviedo Mall (the best mall in Medellin))).

If this happens to you, gather everything you can. That was especially important because the failed withdrawal showed up in my bank account as happening the following day. I assume that’s because I did it on a Sunday, so Bancolombia didn’t withdraw from my bank until Monday. If I had only told my bank I made a withdrawal that Sunday and it didn’t work, they could’ve just responded: “There were no withdrawals from your account on Sunday.”

My bank told me they would look into it but their response was very neutral. I wasn’t optimistic. A month later, I received a message that the support request was now closed. When I looked in my account, the withdrawal was reversed.

The alleged thief, looking polite and innocent, but the sinister red light by the cash slot gives him away..

Pro tip: Use the ATM with the lineup.

If the machine doesn’t have a line-up, you’re gambling.

A funny thing happened while I was trying to coerce cash out of my delinquent ATM: a lineup formed at one of the other ATMs. That’s not uncommon to see at ATMs in Colombia. There could be a row of six ATMs, like there were at the mall that day, and they’ll all be open except for one, which has a long lineup of people. GET IN LINE AND USE THAT MACHINE.

I knew to do that, but there wasn’t a lineup at any of the machines when I arrived. A nice lady from the newly-formed line actually came over to me and explained in Spanish that I shouldn’t use the machine I was frowning at because it has a red light. I tried to explain it had a green light before and my cash was inside, but it probably came off in a very general sense: of course these machines all have our cash inside of them! 

The reason you go to the machine with the lineup is because people know it has cash. ATMs in Colombia often run out of cash. You’ll even find this in the airport if you arrive late in the day–you might be greeted by a row of machines that all say FUERA DE SERVICIO.

Are there reliable ATMs to use in Medellin?

Some bank machines seemed to be more reliable than others. I started to only use Interbank machines at Western Union locations. There’s one across from Santa Fe Mall at Oviedo Mall. 

One of the reasons for using the ATMs at the Western Union stores was the fact they’re open seven days of the week, so if I had a problem, I knew I could explain it to somebody. You can also find the green Interbank ATMs in other locations around the city, and they always worked great for me. The design of the withdrawal process is also easy to understand.

The dog park in the central atrium of Santa Fe Mall, Medellin, Colombia. There are multicolored flags strung across, shops and an escalator visible in the back, a fountain, shrubs, a doggy treats kiosk, a picnic table, some people standing around, and nine foot tall, purple and pink statues of animals. There's a purple Frenchie, and a pink cat playing with a ball of yarn.
If the ATMs at Santa Fe Mall in Medellin end up eating your cash, just go upstairs and have ice cream by the dog park in the mall's central atrium (if you have any cash to buy ice cream)

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