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Scrap scam

March 31, 2011

Germany's central bank has been scammed by a clever group of criminals. Flight attendants were co-opted to smuggle disassembled euro coins back from China, where they had been sent for recycling, prosecutors say.

A euro coin split in two
The old euro coins were split into two parts for recyclingImage: picture-alliance/ZB

Get-rich-quick schemes don't normally require heavy lifting, but the six people arrested in connection with a euro coin scam on Wednesday allegedly moved tons of metal around the globe to make their millions.

The criminals exploited the recycling program at Germany's central bank, the Bundesbank, which exchanges damaged one- and two-euro coins at face value.

Those coins consist of a ring and a centerpiece - with one part made of nickel and brass, and the other made of copper and nickel.

When damaged coins are handed in, the two parts are mechanically separated so the metal can be sold as scrap – typically to China. But some crafty crooks found a way to reassemble them.

Frankfurt raids

Police raided 10 locations in Frankfurt and three surrounding cities on Wednesday, arresting six people and seizing three tons of coin pieces as well as a machine for putting them back together.

The Frankfurt prosecutor's office says the suspects had been running the scam since 2007, exchanging some 29 tons of coins worth a total of 6 million euros. All the suspects are aged between 28 and 45 years old; all but two are of Chinese origin.

Two euro coins
The coins were reassembled and traded in for valid moneyImage: picture-alliance / Helga Lade Fotoagentur GmbH

The conspirators allegedly mixed the fraudulent coins with legitimate ones before exchanging them at the Bundesbank.

Because the central bank primarily confirms the value of the coins by weighing them, the heist went unnoticed for years.

Up in the air

Flight attendants were used to smuggle the coins and coin pieces from China to Germany, because they face no weight restrictions on their luggage, according to the Frankfurt prosecutor's office.

A Lufthansa spokesman told Reuters the company was made aware of an investigation into individual employees.

Germany's Bild newspaper reported the prosecutor's office suspects at least 25 people are involved in the scam.

It said the investigation began in early 2010 after a flight attendant drew attention to herself at the Frankfurt airport. She was struggling under the weight of her luggage, which was filled with coins.

Author: Gerhard Schneibel
Editor: Sam Edmonds