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CRIME

Cashing in: Why Germany is an ‘El Dorado’ for bank machine raiders

Some 369 bank machines or ATMs were destroyed by explosions in Germany last year, a 38-percent increase compared with 2017 and 10 times more than a decade ago, according to data from the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA).

Cashing in: Why Germany is an 'El Dorado' for bank machine raiders
An exploded ATM in Neukirchen-Vluyn in North Rhine-Westphalia in 2017. Photo: DPA

“Search for black Audi after attempt to blow up a cash machine”, “Neighbours hear loud bang, perpetrators flee in Audi”, “Car chase through three federal states”: headlines like these have become commonplace around Germany as raids on cash machines have increased in number.

Carried out late at night, perpetrators often plan the attacks “months in advance”, according to Europol.

The crimes can be risky, with one man killed in October 2018 while attempting a similar attack on a ticket machine at a local train station in Halle, southwest of Berlin.

But successful attacks on ATMs are highly lucrative.

In May, raiders who blasted open a Commerzbank cash machine in Eschborn, near Frankfurt, made off with €190,000.

The police managed to grab one suspect who returned to the scene of the
crime in the small hours, but his accomplices and the cash have disappeared without trace, Frankfurt prosecutor Christian Hartwig said.

Many cash machine crackers come “from the Netherlands and central Europe” to Germany simply because of its favourable geography, he added.

An exploded ATM at U-Bahn Mierendorffplatz in Berlin. Photo: DPA

'Audi gang'

Germany's geographical position at the centre of Europe and its dense web of motorways, much of which is not covered by a speed limit, means that criminals can more easily shake off police than elsewhere — driving German-made sports cars, naturally.

One particularly notorious group has plagued the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, which shares a border with the Netherlands and where the largest number of bank raids are carried out.

The press dubbed the group the “Audi gang” because their getaway car of choice tended to be rented or stolen vehicles of that particular high-end brand.

Three members of the gang were hauled before a court in state capital Düsseldorf in June, accused of stealing more than €600,000 and causing €100,000 of damage in 2017-18.

Last year, a total of 128 suspects were arrested over cash machine robberies, most of them from the Netherlands, the BKA said.

Even so, Germany accounts for more than one-third of the attacks recorded across 11 large European countries surveyed by the European Association for Secure Transactions (EAST).

The nation's 58,000 machines make up just 16 percent of the installed base across all the countries in the study.

A blown up 'Geldautomat', or cash machine, in Berlin's Kreuzberg in May. Photo: DPA

Fighting back

While cash machine attacks have mounted in Germany, the number reported in the other 10 nations studied by EAST, including France and Britain, fell 15 percent to just under 700 altogether.

Such data highlight how banks can work together with government support to reduce the incentives to blast open ATMs.

In the Netherlands, lenders created the “Geldmaat” network, agreeing to hold less cash in each machine but refill them more regularly in order to reduce the potential payoff for any one raid.

France ordered banks in 2015 to fit ATMs with systems that stain banknotes if they are forcibly removed.

Europol credits the move with sharply reducing the number of attacks in France, which fell from 304 in 2013 to just 58 in 2018, according to National Gendarmerie figures.

Even in Germany, criminals fail to secure any banknotes in 60 percent of cases thanks to well-protected machines, the BKA said.

But successful attacks can be highly lucrative.

On average, €130,000 are stolen in each German crime, compared with just €17,100 euros across the 11 countries surveyed by EAST.

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CRIME

One injured in school shooting in Bremerhaven

A 21-year-old gunman opened fire at a secondary school in northern Germany on Thursday, badly injuring a female member of staff before being arrested, police said.

One injured in school shooting in Bremerhaven

The incident happened at the Lloyd Gymnasium school in the centre of Bremerhaven, a city on Germany’s North Sea coast, on Thursday morning. 

“The armed person has been arrested and is in police custody,” police said in a statement. The injured woman was not a pupil, police said.

They said the suspect had entered the school building and fired at a female member of staff, who was “seriously injured”.

The alarm was quickly raised and police said they detained the suspect at a nearby location soon after and had seized his weapon at the scene.

The injured woman is being treated in hospital.

A video circulating on social media and German news sites appeared to capture the moment the gunman was arrested.

A man dressed in black is seen lying face down on a street corner, with a weapon next to him, before being handcuffed by officers.

But there was no immediate confirmation of reports the alleged weapon was a crossbow.

Bremerhaven police tweeted in the morning that a large deployment was under way in the city centre and asked residents to avoid the Mayor-Martin-Donandt square and surrounding streets, in the vicinity of the Lloyd secondary school.

Local news site Nord24 said a school pupil had heard shots being fired and called the police. Pupils barricaded themselves in their classrooms.

Police launched a large-scale operation and cordoned off the area around the school while they carried out inquiries. 

By mid-afternoon, police said special forces had completed their search and the last people had left the building.

Authorities set up a phone hotline for concerned parents. Many parents had gathered in front of the school after being alerted by their children.

Pupils and staff are receiving psychological counselling.

Local media said only around 200 people were on the school grounds, fewer than normal because of exam times.

In a separate incident on Thursday, police in the eastern city of Leipzig said they had detained a 21-year-old student still at secondary school after being tipped off by Snapchat that he had posted pictures of himself with a gun and made unspecified threats.

The US social media platform alerted German authorities, prompting Leipzig police to take action.

 A police spokesman said that the 21-year-old did not pose a real threat, however, and only possessed an airsoft gun, a replica firearm that uses non-lethal, usually plastic, pellets.

‘Strict gun laws’

School shootings are relatively rare in Germany, a country with some of the strictest gun laws in Europe. But a recent spate has rattled the population.

Last week, investigators in Germany’s city of Essen said they foiled a school bomb assault, as they arrested a 16-year-old who is suspected to have been planning a “Nazi terror attack”.

Police in Essen stormed the teen’s room overnight, taking him into custody and uncovering 16 “pipe bombs”, as well as anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim material.

In January, an 18-year-old student opened fire in a lecture hall at Heidelberg University in southwestern Germany, killing a young woman and
injuring three others before fleeing the scene and turning the weapon on himself.

In 2009, a former pupil killed nine students, three teachers and three passers-by in a school shooting at Winnenden, in the German state of Baden-Württemberg. The gunman then killed himself.

In 2002, a 19-year-old former student, apparently in revenge for having been expelled, shot dead 16 people including 12 teachers and two students at a school in the central German city of Erfurt. He too then killed himself.

The Winnenden and Erfurt massacres were carried out with legal weapons and spurred Germany to tighten gun laws.

The country currently requires anyone under 25 to pass a psychiatric exam before applying for a gun licence.

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