The sight of a prim, uniformed German flight attendant struggling to lug her impossibly heavy hand luggage through the “nothing to declare” channel at Frankfurt airport convinced Customs officials something was up.
When the luckless cabin crew member opened her valise for officers, it was groaning with thousands of €1 and €2 coins.
“Pulling open the zip on the case was like winning the jackpot on a fruit machine,” is how one of the officials remembered the find. Yet they also noticed that many of the euro coins in the luggage were oddly shaped, defaced or even bent.
The flight attendant protested her innocence: “It’s money a friend of mine in China gave me to trade in. No bank there will accept this sort of cash,” she insisted.
Yesterday, the curtain was lifted on the origins of the mysterious haul of bent euros after state prosecutors announced the arrest of six people.
Among them were four ethnic Chinese and flight attendants employed by Lufthansa.
They are suspected of involvement in one of the biggest professionally organised euro scams since the single currency’s introduction.
“The six are being investigated on suspicion of importing forged coins,” Frankfurt state prosecutor Doris Mller-Scheu said. She said 25 people were thought to have belonged to the forgery ring.
Those in police custody in Frankfurt are accused of exploiting the Bundesbank’s standard procedure for removing damaged or defaced euro coins from circulation and reissuing those who bring them to the bank with legitimate coinage or notes.
The six stand accused of re-importing €20 million ($37 million) worth of damaged and defaced coins which the Bundesbank believed it had sold off to China to be melted down as scrap metal.
To minimise the risk of foul play, the Bundesbank deliberately dismantles damaged coins before their disposal. But the coins were being intercepted by a gang of forgers who arranged for them to be carefully reassembled by a team of accomplices in China.
The gang used airline cabin crew to act as “mules” and take the reassembled coins back to Germany. They dragged the coins in their hand luggage past initially unsuspecting Customs staff at Frankfurt international airport.
Other gang members took the reassembled euros back to the Bundesbank to swap for legitimate notes.
The Bundesbank said it carried out random tests only on defaced coins returned to the bank so had failed to notice a scam was under way.