Debt-hit Greece swamped by burglaries, robberies

Debt-hit Greece swamped by burglaries, robberies

Most serious crime is down or stable overall, but reports of burglaries and robberies were on the rise

Debt-hit Greece swamped by burglaries, robberies

One evening three weeks ago in Kifissia, an affluent garden suburb of Athens, a retired financial adviser and his wife decided to take in one of the delights of summer in the Greece capital, an outdoor movie. They pulled tight the shutters, set the alarm, locked the house and strolled off.

Halfway through the movie the alarm company called, and they rushed home to find the alarm immersed in a bucket of water, the shutters jimmied and a safe emptied of jewellery. The speed and sophistication of the crime were astonishing, the financial adviser’s wife said, still feeling vulnerable and not willing to be identified by name. “They knew they had 10 minutes until the police came; they put everything in a pillowcase, and they were gone,” she said. At seemingly every dinner gathering in Athens this summer, the conversation turns to tales of break-ins, burglaries and robberies that have accompanied the government debt crisis. Even before the crisis shut down the banks and limited the availability of cash, crime of this sort was ticking upward.

But in the weeks before capital controls were imposed at the end of June, billions of euros fled the Greek banking system. Greeks feared that their euro deposits might be automatically converted to a new currency if Greece left the eurozone and would quickly lose value, or that they would face a “haircut” to their accounts if their bank failed amid the stresses of the crisis. While the rich may have moved their money to Switzerland, Luxembourg or safe deposit boxes, the middle class has stashed not just cash but gold and jewellery, among other valuables, under the proverbial mattress.

Greek crime statistics released last week hinted at a dark side to the secreting of all those valuables. Across Greece, the most serious crime is down or stable overall, but reports of burglaries and robberies were on the rise for the first six months of the year suggesting that the hidden valuables had become enticing targets for thieves. The increases in crime are small, and it is hard to parse how much is driven by economic hard times, rising poverty and unemployment, and how much is opportunistic, with more soft targets out there. The cash dependency also began at the end of the period, so its impact will not be fully reflected until new data is released. But with the number of robberies in banks, gas stations and supermarkets falling while those in homes and shops are rising, several experts said a pattern seems to be emerging suggesting that the bad guys are going where the money is.

“Many people have taken their money into their homes, so this is understandable,” a police spokesman in Athens said. “Crime has stayed about the same overall, or gone down in the high-risk places, like banks, and up in the soft targets, like on the streets.”
The thieves are most likely part of organised rings, not poor people, said Mary Mantouvalou, a lawyer in the legal aid department of the Athens Bar Association. “A poor person, when he goes to steal, he’ll go to a supermarket, he’ll go to someone known to him who has money,” Mantouvalou said. Overall, security consciousness is rising. It is common to see clusters of uniformed police officers outside the ATMs where people line up for their cash ration, especially at bank branches frequented by vulnerable pensioners. Many apartment doors have sprouted new security locks with heavy metal plates, similar to the locks used in safes.

Razor wire bristles from garden gates where there were none last summer. Athenians now remind one another to watch out for chain snatchers on the street, to bolt their front doors and to close balcony doors at night. The anti-immigrant, neo-fascist party Golden Dawn has seized on crime as a political tool, using it to cultivate loyalty by escorting older adults to the bank so they would not be robbed by “foreigners.” And the US State Department warned this year that while Athens is generally safe, tourists should beware of pickpocketing and purse snatching in crowded tourist areas and on buses and the Metro.

This year in the Athens region, there were 6,600 home break-ins, up from 6,319 during the same time last year, part of a 6.2 per cent rise in burglaries. Robberies rose 13.6 per cent, including a 6.4 per cent increase in robberies in homes. Shop burglaries rose 20.8 per cent, to 2,575 from 2,131. Petty theft in public spaces like beaches and parks rose 38 per cent, to 2,392 from 1,732, the police said, and mobile phone robberies also rose sharply. On July 19, the night before Greek banks reopened for limited transactions, the head of the Greek banking association, Louka Katseli, called on Greeks to come back. “Tomorrow when the banks reopen and normality returns, let’s all help our economy,” Katseli said. “If we take our money out of chests and from our homes, where it is not safe anyway, and we deposit it in the banks, we’ll be boosting the liquidity of the economy.”

And may be fighting crime as well. One woman told how her sister’s family had unthinkingly left the ground-floor windows open in their apartment on Lycabettus Hill, an aristocratic part of Athens. While the nanny was alone in the kitchen, burglars sneaked in, cracked a safe, and made off with jewellery and gold coins given to celebrate the birth of a son. The nanny never heard a thing.

Business fraud

Business fraud seeking cash also seems to be on the rise, said Rodi Constantoglou, who owns two Greek handicraft stores in Athens. Her shops were recently hit twice - once by a man who persuaded an assistant to pay for a bottle of perfume he insisted Constantoglou had ordered (it was counterfeit), and again when a woman insisted that Constantoglou had promised to help pay for her mother’s back operation (she got away with 20 euros).

Like the Athens area, the South Aegean Islands, with their prosperous vacation homeowners and the shopkeepers who cater to them, have also seen an uptick in burglaries, to 214 from 158 for homes, and to 115 from 65 for shops. Mantouvalou, the lawyer, said that on Sunday burglars broke the window of the friend of a friend’s island house, and fled when the owners returned. They took nothing, and left a tablet computer and cellphone untouched, suggesting that they were looking for just cash. Mantouvalou said her friends have always felt safe on the island and were shocked. A spokesman for the regional police, Petros Vasilakis, confirmed the burglary. But he said crime always rises in the tourist season, and it was too soon to draw conclusions.

Almost everyone has a story. While walking to work last week, Myrsini Zorba, who runs a nonprofit, excused herself to answer her mobile phone. When she hung up, she explained that a friend had called seeking comfort. She had been at her country home when burglars broke in and stripped everyone of laptops and other valuables. “At least,” Zorba said resignedly, “no one was beaten or hurt.”

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