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Euro knocks on Europe's door

With the release of the euro less than a month away, European countries prepare for the new money.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 7, 2001



PARIS

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From the Arctic Sea to the Straits of Gibraltar, European police are on high alert as armored vans and military convoys carry hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of Europe's new currency to shops and banks across the continent.

With less than a month to go before 12 countries ditch their traditional money and start using the euro Jan. 1, "the most important problem we face right now is armed robbery," says Christian Jacquier, head of the financial crimes unit at Europol, the pan-European police intelligence unit.

Only one heist has been reported so far, when a German bullion truck driver made off with $1.2 million of the new currency.

Governments have coped with the threat by storing euros in military barracks and sometimes transporting them in military vehicles. But the authorities are on the alert for other criminal attempts to take advantage of the biggest financial transaction in history - the conversion of 600 billion dollars' worth of old money into new.

As shopkeepers got their hands on the first euros this week, Europol had not seen any counterfeit notes, says Mr. Jacquier, although he is sure they will turn up soon enough, given that the euro is intended to be a world currency in a league with the US dollar.

The European Central Bank has made life harder for forgers by releasing the notes only this week, and by manufacturing what it claims are the most counterfeit-proof banknotes ever made, with security features ranging from watermarks and holograms to metal strips and ink that changes color depending on the light.

Critics have warned that the new currency, especially its top-value 500 euro note (US$450), will be a boon to money launderers and money smugglers wanting to transport large sums of ill-gotten gains easily. But the authorities say they expect no significant increase in money laundering; they think the currency will instead pose difficulties for criminals.

"Most criminals buy things with the fruits of their crime and don't use banks," says Jacquier. "The euro will be a problem for them because they will have to go through the banking system one way or another to get the new currency, which is an opportunity for us to track them."

Banks must report anyone changing more than 10,000 euros (US$9,000) in cash from an old currency into the new one.

Though most European citizens see the currency switch as a chore at best, full of opportunities for fraudsters and dishonest shopkeepers to take advantage of public confusion over how much the euro is worth, some are seeing it in a more positive light.

Esther Jacobs, for example, is hoping to turn useless old coins that her Dutch compatriots have left lying around in forgotten corners into more than $20 million for charity.

Though shoppers will be able to use their old national coins and notes for six weeks after the switch, there is nothing they can do with foreign coins that they have left over from past holidays or business trips.

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