Lithuanians crack fake euro ring worth millions

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The Independent Online

Some Lithuanians were a bit too anxious to introduce the euro to their country. In what is being billed as the largest seizure of counterfeit euro notes since they were introduced, Lithuanian police have announced the discovery of fake bills worth €9m (£6.3m) as part of an extensive sting operation.

Some Lithuanians were a bit too anxious to introduce the euro to their country. In what is being billed as the largest seizure of counterfeit euro notes since they were introduced, Lithuanian police have announced the discovery of fake bills worth €9m (£6.3m) as part of an extensive sting operation.

According to police, officers from the country's anti-terrorism unit stormed buildings around the country on Saturday afternoon in a blitz operation aimed at uncovering the counterfeiting racket. Thirteen men suspected of having ties to organised crime were arrested, including a group caught in the act of printing forged bills. In addition to stacks of uncut €100 note sheets, officers also found US dollars, advanced printing equipment, and a sizeable amount of legitimate European legal tender. Preliminary evidence shows that the presses had been cranking out the euros seven days a week, perhaps for several years.

Police focused their attention on an office building in the central city of Kaunas, where most of the seized items were found. Yet simultaneous operations in as many as 40 other locations also turned up equipment used to print the bills, pointing to the highly sophisticated and clandestine structure of the criminal organisation that controlled the presses.

The amount of money printed was large by any standards; according to the European Central Bank, only a little over €17m-worth of fake money was taken out of circulation worldwide in the first half of 2004. And Lithuanian law enforcement agencies expect to uncover more counterfeiting groups in continued investigations.

The confiscated money has given Lithuania the ignominious distinction as one of the world's largest known exporters of counterfeit European currency. Bulgaria - the previous record holder for high-volume fake euro production - has reported the seizure of a relatively paltry €3m from 2001 until the middle of this year.

European watchdogs have been aware of the flood of fake euros from eastern Europe for several years. "The vast majority of counterfeits come from abroad," said Tobias Oudejans, press officer for De Nederlandsche Bank, the Dutch central bank. Lithuanian officials initiated their investigation in part because of the arrest of an unusually high number of the country's citizens accused of pawning counterfeit notes in euro-zone countries, including Holland.

Central banks reported a surge in counterfeit euros in late 2003 and early 2004 as crooks gained a better understanding of how to forge the bills after they were introduced in 12 EU states on 1 January, 2002.

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