Italy Leads Europe in Bank Robberies

Italy's biggest banks rank no higher than ninth in Europe by market value. They come in first by another yardstick: robberies. Italy recorded 1,744 bank robberies last year, more than six times the number in Germany and 20 times the U.K. figure, according to a June 30 report by FIBA, the Italian bank employees' union. The country's banks lost $47.5 million to thieves last year, according to data compiled by Italian banking association ABI. Bank robberies in Italy accounted for almost half of such thefts in the European Union last year.

Most Italian bank robberies are small-time jobs, with two out of three heists bringing in less than $20,000, according to ABI. Many of the perpetrators are amateurs, often armed with little more than knives. A 41-year-old mother robbed three banks in the Turin area in one day in May with her seven-month-old baby in tow. "I haven't got a steady job," she told police when she was arrested after her fourth attempted holdup of the day. "I didn't know how to get by with a small child." Police have declined to disclose her identity.

Italian banks spend more than $900 million a year on antitheft equipment such as closed-circuit cameras and alarms, says Alessandro Spaggiari, FIBA's national secretary in Rome. He adds that only a little of that money goes to smaller branches, since those locations have relatively limited amounts of cash. The abundance of branches in neighborhoods with minimal police presence makes Italian banks easy pickings. Intesa Sanpaolo, Italy's biggest bank by branches, has 5,921 outlets in its home market, more than twice as many as France's BNP Paribas and about 1,000 more than Banco Santander (STD) has in its Spanish network.

The ABI is trying to get Italians, who like using cash, to switch to credit cards and other noncash instruments to improve security and bring Italy in line with the rest of Europe. Italians make an average of 66 noncash transactions per person every year, about one-third the euro zone average and four times less than in Britain, according to a Bank of Italy report. Says Pierfrancesco Gaggi, head of infrastructure at ABI: "The less that cash circulates in branches, the fewer robberies we'll have."

The bottom line: Italy's abundance of bank branches in areas with low police presence means robbers have plenty of potential targets.

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