11 of the biggest heists in history
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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 organized and connected — meaning 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, often with the help of anonymous shell companies, which are secretive entities that hide the identities of the real owners. They have become favorite vehicles of the criminal and corrupt. It’s a Trillion Dollar Scandal.

1. The Great Mining Robbery

Dunbar Armored

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, anonymous shell companies purchased mines for as little as 1-16th of their actual value, and then resold them at full price, siphoning off money that should have accrued to the state. Between 2010 and 2012, the DRC lost at least US$1.36 billion in revenues from just five such deals. That amount was nearly double the country’s combined annual budgets for health and education in 2012. The DRC ranks at the bottom of the UN’s Human Development Index, has some of the world’s worst malnutrition, the world’s sixth highest child mortality rate, and over 7 million children out of school.

2. Great Train Robbery

The theft of £2.6 million (US$3.4 million) 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. Accomplished using only 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

Former Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos was a greedy man. He is widely believed to have taken between US$5 billion and US$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 US$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 between US$3 billion and US$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 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, in part because he used anonymous shell companies to hide the money in countries around the world.

5. Jean-Claude Duvalier

Former Haitian President “Baby Doc” Duvalier may top the list here, given 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,” according to the World Bank. The search for his money is still going on, decades after he lost power in 1986.

6. Saddam Hussein

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. It was probably hard to say “no.”

7. UK bonds

At 9.30 a.m. on May 2, 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 £292 million 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 commercialized the wholesale theft of financial and personal information,” said a US official. How much was stolen as a result? No one really knows, but estimates run into the hundreds of billions.

9. Bernie Madoff

Bernie Madoff conned investors out of US$65 billion, 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 — all while pocketing his own share. When investors started asking for their money back, the house of cards structure collapsed. He was sentenced to 150 years in prison.

10. The Great Oil Heist

In 2011, subsidiaries of Shell and ENI paid US$1.1 billion to the Nigerian government for an offshore block with estimated oil reserves of 9 billion barrels. The government transferred exactly the same amount to an account earmarked for Malabu Oil & Gas, an anonymous shell company whose hidden owner was Dan Etete. Etete then secretly awarded the oil block to himself while he was Nigeria’s petroleum minister in 1998. After years of legal battles, the oil block was taken from Malabu Oil & Gas and awarded to Shell and ENI, who then paid the money to the Nigerian government, allegedly with knowledge that it would be forwarded to Etete’s company. That US$1.1 billion could have been used to fully immunize every single child under 5 in the country. Both Shell and ENI are the focus of corruption investigations in Italy, Netherlands and the UK. 

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.

If you add up all of the money from these heists, it doesn’t come close to $1 trillion. But if you add up how much gets taken out of developing countries every year — in cons, thefts, bribes, corporate schemes, tax dodging and other scams, many of them involving anonymous shell companies — you’ll get $1 trillion. 

Tell your US Senator it’s time to put an end to the use of anonymous shell companies: take action now.

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