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In Italy, Fake Euros That Even the Authorities Admire

GIUGLIANO IN CAMPANIA, Italy — While Europe’s financial overlords debate the wisdom of spurring growth by letting the European Central Bank print more money, some enterprising sorts in this semi-urban sprawl northwest of Naples are taking matters into their own hands and printing reams of counterfeit euros.

A counterfeit 100-euro-banknote.
Andreas Arnold | AFP | Getty Images
A counterfeit 100-euro-banknote.

The Campania region of southern Italy is known for its sunny skies, fresh mozzarella and organized crime, but it has a different kind of cottage industry that accounts for more than half of the 550,000 to 800,000 fake euro notes pulled from circulation annually by European central banks.

Italy appears to have a particular artisanal flair for the printing arts, even though the authorities have also found illicit euro operations in France, Spain, Eastern Europe, and South America. Its most accomplished practitioners can be found in and around Giugliano, where concrete-block apartments abut orchards and car dealerships, and young African prostitutes stand amid the rushes on unkempt roads.

“In Italy, there’s a great, ancient and august tradition: Here, they make fake money, done well,” said Col. Alessandro Gentili, the head of the Italian Carabinieri’s Currency Anti-Counterfeiting Unit in Rome. “Giugliano is still the capital. It has the best professionals.”

Quite a number of them, as it turns out. When the police rolled up some of the counterfeiting operations around Giugliano as well as in the Calabria region farther south in January 2009, they raided 162 locations and arrested 109 people, seizing a mountain of illicit materials.

Despite that raid, the biggest in years, Colonel Gentili says the counterfeiting continues, a tradition that — like winemaking, pottery, fabrics and other fine arts for which Italy is justly famous — is often passed from father to son.

This month, the police in the southern Apulia region, also known as Puglia, arrested two men on charges of counterfeiting and said that organized crime groups around the city of Foggia had teamed up with those from the Campania region to produce a swarm of fake euros.

While Campania is dominated by the Camorra, the notoriously violent organized crime network, the authorities here say counterfeiting is actually a peripheral line for the gangsters, who prefer to focus on more lucrative businesses like toxic waste dumping, drug trafficking and illegal garment workshops.

“Organized crime certainly obtains a cut from this activity, and it can intervene to regulate its use in the market because it has economic interests in the area,” said Raffaele Cantone, a Supreme Court justice who as a magistrate earlier in his career conducted wide-reaching investigations into the Camorra.

Colonel Gentili, who displays a clear respect for the wily counterfeiters he spends his days chasing, said proudly that his unit, founded in 1992, was the first anti-counterfeiting unit in Europe, owing to Italy’s gift for fakery. Before the euro, Italian presses, especially in the Naples area, specialized in fake lire, dollars and French and Swiss francs, he said.

"“In Italy, there’s a great, ancient and august tradition: Here, they make fake money, done well.”" -Italian Carabinieri's Anti-Counterfeiting Unit , Col. Alessandro Gentili

On his office wall, he displayed a counterfeit “A.M. lira,” a currency circulated after the Allied landing in Italy, which was printed in Leonforte, Sicily, in 1946.

To the untrained eye, the counterfeit euros made by groups active in this area are reasonably convincing. But they look slightly off: They are printed on paper without a watermark, and their silver holograms catch the light differently from those on real euros.

Authorities found the first fake euros within days of the currency’s introduction in January 2002, and they made their first big counterfeiting raids six months later. Since then, the euro has become a global currency, and counterfeit euros have followed the currents of international drug trafficking and immigration.

In recent years, the authorities have found fake euros in Bulgaria, Colombia, Russia, Turkey, Iran and Iraq, countries with large cash economies, where it is often easier to spend fake euros because bank and shop clerks are not so familiar with the real thing. Sometimes immigrants from Africa and Latin America knowingly buy fake euros in Europe and try to use them back home to buy property, Colonel Gentili said.

The euro — particularly the 500-euro note, worth about $660 — has become the currency of choice for drug dealers worldwide, and fake euros have become part of their operations. Last month, the authorities in Bogotá, Colombia, dismantled a counterfeit press and seized half a million counterfeit euro notes.

The European Central Bank, which tracks counterfeiting, says that most of the hundreds of thousands of counterfeit euro bills it pulls from circulation every year are 20s and 50s. That may not be much, compared with an average of 14 billion real euro bank notes in circulation at any given time, but it provides enough of an infusion to keep the authorities alert.

Allister McCallum, the head of the bank’s Anti-Counterfeiting Section, said the counterfeiters tended to fall into one of three categories: amateurs with nothing more than an ink-jet printer; rogue states; and skilled professionals, like those operating around Giugliano.

On the surface, Giugliano would not appear to be a hotbed of counterfeiting. Its main street is lined with nondescript buildings, midrange clothing shops, a modern city hall, a church and a seemingly disproportionate number of funeral homes. But its outskirts stretching west to the coast are marked by chaotic zoning and semi-abandoned buildings that hint at darker goings-on.

In one case near Giugliano in 2009, counterfeiters tipped off to an imminent raid tried to dispose of their stock by throwing fake 100-euro bills into a nearby stream.

In past centuries, the counterfeiting of coins with images of monarchs was a serious crime, carrying punishments as severe as death. Today, the European Commission is working to help create a “minimum maximum” sentence for fabricating euros because punishments vary across the 27 countries in the European Union.

Italy has relatively high sentences of 3 to 12 years, but application remains a challenge. Because the wheels of Italian justice turn ever so slowly, and judges often reduce counterfeiters’ sentences on appeal, recidivism remains high. Some of the people arrested in the 2009 sweep have already been released, though they are being monitored by the police.

The authorities point to a particularly vexing case in which a man from the Campania region was arrested in 2007 when the police say they found him printing counterfeit euros. After spending a month in jail, he was placed under house arrest pending the outcome of his trial, which is still in progress. In 2009, he was arrested again on similar charges and repeated the same detention cycle as before, then was arrested yet again this year on a charge of counterfeiting.

“We often find ourselves following the same people,” Colonel Gentili said with a knowing and slightly resigned smile. “They steal, they escape, they forge ahead, we follow,” he said. “It’s like a game of cat and mouse.”

Gaia Pianigiani contributed reporting.

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