Robbers may be in for surprise
December 23, 2004
BELFAST, Northern Ireland – Although they’ve committed the world’s biggest all-cash robbery in peacetime, the audacious raiders of a Belfast bank face an uphill struggle to use most of their $42 million haul – because their Northern Ireland-produced bills are easy to track and hard to spend.
“These guys saw bounty beyond their wildest dreams and loaded up on everything. But a lot of it is effectively toilet paper,” Jeffrey Robinson, an expert on money laundering and international crime, said about Monday’s raid on the central cash vault of Northern Bank.
More than $25 million of the bills stolen were newly minted notes produced by Northern Bank itself. Most of the rest, police say, are used notes produced either by Northern or the other three major banks in this British territory.
While Northern Ireland-issued currency is officially British pounds sterling, other parts of the United Kingdom usually refuse to accept it – and most of the rest of the world barely recognizes the stuff.
Now, because the size of the robbery has attracted much attention, the entire global financial community is on alert for large volumes of used Northern Ireland notes.
“They should have been much more selective in what they stole. But they had sugar plums dancing in their heads, they were stupid and they went for everything,” said Robinson, who thinks the only notes that the gang can launder safely outside Northern Ireland will be those produced by the Bank of England, Britain’s mainstream note.
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Further complicating the crooks’ hopes of realizing their profits, any attempt to spend large amounts of cash in Britain and Ireland can attract attention from powerful anti-racketeering agencies with power to seize the property and other assets of criminals.
The 45-member detective team trying to hunt down the gang, meanwhile, rejected criticism Thursday of the police handling of the case, but made two more shocking admissions: They’d missed by minutes a chance to stop the robbers’ cash-filled van, and still don’t have a single serial number for any of Northern Bank’s factory-fresh cash.
Detective Superintendent Andy Sproule admitted police couldn’t yet advise businesses in Northern Ireland and farther afield in Scotland and the Irish Republic – where Northern Ireland-issued notes are sometimes accepted – what serial numbers to look out for.