The Great Euro Robberies

During the changeover, it's open season for criminals

The scene was like something out of a B-movie. On Sept. 24, Kalashnikov-toting thieves in Bari, Italy, used a wrecking ball to smash their way into a high-security depository. They backed a truck up to the hole and made off with $4.16 million in freshly minted euro coins. "We were on the scene within minutes," says Bari police spokesman Salvatore Barilaro. "But our first car was immobilized by spikes the robbers threw in the road, and the ones behind crashed into it. The criminals got clean away."

It was a mortifying moment for the architects of European Monetary Union. Next Jan. 1, the euro replaces the national currencies of the 12 EMU nations, making tangible the money that has existed as an accounting unit since 1999. The Bari robbery confirmed the worst fears of police shepherding $315 billion of euro notes and coins into place: Criminals have their eyes on this unprecedented transfer of cash.

The money convoys and storage sites are heavily guarded. That hasn't stopped some determined thieves. In Bari, police suspect a local mafia group. In Germany, Halil Yurtsever, an armored-truck driver, is suspected of tying up colleagues and absconding with more than $2 million. French and German police say thugs have tried to hold up convoys and failed. Eventually, someone will succeed.

Meanwhile, retailers and banks are beefing up security and buying more insurance. But officials at Europol, the European Union police agency, and Interpol, its international counterpart, also fear that the first few months of the physical euro's existence could be a field day for counterfeiters, with store and bank staff too focused on making the right change to scrutinize unfamiliar notes. "It will be the perfect time for criminals to pass off even poor-quality fakes," says Frank Spicka, head of Interpol's anti-terrorism unit.

Police say that Mafia groups are responsible for most European counterfeiting. But Russian and Eastern European bands are getting into the business. The Balkans, where the soon-to-be-converted German mark has replaced some local currencies, will be a staging ground. Russian mobs, Interpol says, operate three counterfeiting rings out of Bulgaria and may already be printing euro notes, which they would smuggle into the EU via the former Yugoslavia.

STOLEN PLATE. For all their convoys and armored vehicles, officials handling the changeover are responsible for some serious lapses. In 1998, a plate for printing a security hologram was lost. Although the hologram was redesigned, experts say that the missing plate held vital clues about the notes' security features.

Investigators also worry that criminal groups will forge old currencies to swap for euros during the changeover period, which ends Feb. 28. Police also point out that with the elimination of national currencies, the last barrier to unfettered movement of funds will fall. That means tax evasion, money laundering, and hiding money for terrorism will be easier. The manhunt for Osama bin Laden's followers has shown how easily such groups shift cash. "They can commit crimes in one country, hold their bank accounts in another, live in a third, and move from one to another without even showing a passport," says a Europol official.

Europol has set up a center to track counterfeiting threats. EU police forces have their own task forces. Interpol is gearing up to fight euro crime outside the EU, especially in the Balkans. But the anti-terrorism campaign is stretching police thin. For politicians, the arrival of the euro is a triumph. To Europe's police, it feels like a crime spree in the making.

By David Fairlamb in Frankfurt

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