Britain bans 500-euro note sales in criminal clampdown

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Currency exchanges in Britain have stopped selling 500-euro notes because 90 percent of them were linked to serious crime, tax evasion and terrorism, police said Thursday.

The largest-denomination euro note, worth around 425 pounds or 630 dollars, was secretly withdrawn from sale a month ago, following a voluntary agreement by British bank wholesalers.

Since then, officials have been watching the market to see how criminals have changed tactics.

They have been expecting to see drug smugglers, people traffickers and other top-level crime gangs struggling to launder their profits as a result.

The Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) said there was "no credible legitimate use" for the note in Britain, which is not a member of the eurozone and retains the pound sterling as its currency.

"There is no doubt that the main UK demand for the 500 euro note comes from serious organised criminals," said SOCA deputy director Ian Cruxton.

"This is a bold and welcome move which will cause substantial disruption to criminals' ability to move and launder large quantities of cash ....The 500 euro note is really the note of choice among criminals," he told the BBC.

A senior official at Soca's Financial Investigation Unit said an eight-month inquiry revealed the notes were inextricably tied to serious crime.

"Our analysis found that only about 10 percent of 500-euro notes sold in the UK retail market were used legitimately," he said.

"We anticipate criminals will be moved out of their comfort zone and will have to use other mechanisms for moving cash. That in turn will draw attention to their activities and offer up opportunities for law enforcement."

The high value of the note means 20,000 euros can be hidden in a cigarette packet, while an adult male can stuff and swallow up to 150,000 euros.

British border officials are now on the lookout for criminals going to France to buy large quantities of 500-euro notes.

On Wednesday, Britain's new coalition government said it would not join or prepare to join the euro during the five-year parliament.

© 2010 AFP

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