11 of the biggest heists in history

11 of the biggest heists in history


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Forget Bonnie and Clyde and Jesse James. The real pros steal money in super-massive amounts, on an industrial scale. And for really big thefts you need to be organised and connected, so businesses and politicians rank high on the list of the world’s greatest heists.

But one heist dwarfs all these, and you probably don’t even know about it. More than US $1 trillion – that’s 1,000,000,000,000 – is siphoned out of developing countries every year through money laundering, tax evasion and embezzlement.   It’s a Trillion Dollar Scandal.

1. Dunbar Armed Robbery

Dunbar Armored

The largest cash robbery to have occurred in the United States, in 1997 yielded $18.9 million. It was an inside job: Allen Pace worked for Dunbar as a regional safety inspector. With five friends, he overpowered guards and loaded his haul into a truck. They were caught when a gang member used some of the cash in its original wrapping.

2. Great Train Robbery

great train robbery

The theft of £2.6m doesn’t sound that much these days, but that was big money when thieves stole mailbags from a Royal Mail train in England in 1963. Armed only with a metal bar, the tale of the theft has entered British history. Most of the 17-strong gang were captured and imprisoned, but Ronnie Biggs and Charles Wilson notoriously both escaped.

3. Ferdinand Marcos


The former Philippine President was a greedy man. He is widely believed to have taken between $5 billion and $10 billion, through government loans, bribes, embezzlement, taking over private companies, and outright theft. The proceeds were put in foreign bank accounts and invested in real estate in the US. He was toppled by massive protests, and died in exile in Hawaii in 1989.  Authorities have so far recovered more than $4 billion of stolen assets.

4. Sani Abacha

By the time he died of a heart attack in 1998, General Sani Abacha had reportedly stolen from $3 billion to $5 billion in his five years of governing Nigeria. He got money through dodgy bond deals, but also by simply taking tens of millions in cash from the Central Bank in tens of millions of dollars for “national security” projects. Nigerian officials have managed to reclaim a small part of the money through smart sleuthing and hard-fought legal battles, but the bulk of it remains missing.

5. Jean-Claude Duvalier

Haiti, where Jean-Claude Duvalier ruled. Photo: Pixabay.com

Haiti. Photo: Pixabay.com

Former Haitian President ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier may top the list here, in terms of how much money he is believed to have stolen from a small, poor country. “Duvalier allegedly stole the equivalent of 1.7 to 4.5% of Haitian GDP for every year he was in power,” says the World Bank. The search for his money is still going on, decades after he lost power in 1986.

6. Saddam Hussein

Mural of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, 2004. Photo: Jim Gordon/DOD.

Mural of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, 2004. Photo: Jim Gordon/DOD.

Iraq’s dictator took money the easy way: he asked. He sent his son and personal assistant with a hand-written note to the bank’s governor, telling him to hand over US $920 million and 90 million euros.  It was probably hard to say “no.”

7. UK bonds


At 9.30am on 2 May 1990, messenger John Goddard was walking down a side street in the City of London when someone pulled a knife on him and stole his briefcase. It goes down as the most lucrative mugging in history: the case contained £292m in bonds that were as good as cash. The suspected thief was later found shot dead.

8. Aleksandr Andreevich Panin


Also known as “Gribodemon” and “Harderman,” this Russian cyberthief was responsible for malicious software known as “SpyEye,” which infected more than 1.4 million computers and collected bank accounts, credit card numbers and passwords. “He commercialised the wholesale theft of financial and personal information,” said a US official. How much was stolen as a result? No-one really knows: estimates run into the hundreds of billions.

9. Bernie Madoff

Painted portrait of Bernie Madoff. Photo: Thierry Ehrmann

Painted portrait of Bernie Madoff. Photo: Thierry Ehrmann

Bernie Madoff conned investors out of $65billion, making most of the others on our list look like small-time amateurs. He used a Ponzi scheme – convincing people he could deliver high returns, bringing in new investors and using their money to pay off older ones, while all the while he was pocketing his own share. When investors starting asking for their money back, the rotten structure collapsed. He was sentenced to 150 years in prison.

10. Jérôme Kerviel

VLUU L200 / Samsung L200

The “rogue trader” to beat all rogue traders, Kerviel made risky bets on European stocks – and lost. He faked the system to hide his losses, but in 2008 he got found out. French bank Société Générale reported losses of  €4.9bn. His lawyers said he was the victim of a greedy system, but he was sentenced to prison for three years, and has recently been released.

11. Siemens


One of the largest companies in the world was also one of the largest corrupters. Siemens, a German electrical company, paid hundreds of millions in bribes in at least a dozen countries. “Bribery was nothing less than standard operating procedure at Siemens,” said a US official, using “the time-tested method of suitcases filled with cash.” It paid the largest-ever corporate fines related to foreign bribery, in the US and Germany.

Even if you add up all of this money, it doesn’t come close to a trillion dollars. And that’s how much gets taken out of developing countries every year – in cons, thefts, bribes, corporate schemes, tax dodging and other scams. 

Tell G20 leaders its time to stop the Trillion Dollar Scandal: take action now.

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