- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 27, 2001

TRIER, Germany Tax officers and customs police have begun a rigorous crackdown on thousands of tax dodgers seeking to smuggle their undeclared cash out of Germany for conversion into euros before the mark goes out of existence in the New Year.
The money, generated by the black economy and held in cash in order to evade tax collectors, must be exchanged by Feb. 28, the closing date for converting national currencies into euros, otherwise it will become worthless. Up to $45 billion worth of marks could be involved, German bank officials believe.
In a novel but effective sting operation, German officials have begun to intercept people traveling to Switzerland, Liechtenstein and Luxembourg nations with a long tradition of banking secrecy before they deposit cash in tax-free bank accounts where German marks can be switched undetected into euros.
A six-man team of customs police set up a checkpoint last weekend on the B51 highway linking Germany's Saarland region with Luxembourg to identify potential tax-dodgers' cars as they approached.
BMW, Audi and Mercedes limousines driven by silver-haired businessmen or their wives topped the target list. Driver-only vehicles with license plates indicating that the car was registered in a distant city such as Hamburg or Berlin were also regarded with suspicion.
"We have developed a nose for them," said Werner Thiel, the unit's commander.
One black Audi A6 with license plates from distant Kassel was pulled out of the line of traffic. Inside were a young, male driver and two middle-aged women wearing heavy gold jewelry. "What are you looking for drugs?" asked the young man.
A printed street map found inside the car labeled "The way to the WSG Bank, Luxembourg" aroused the officers' suspicions. The three were ordered out of the car and the women, visibly shaken, pulled large envelopes from their clothing. Each contained more than $9,000 in 1,000-mark notes.
"It's family cash that our aunts and uncles left us down the years," said one of the women. The customs officers photocopied the documents in the women's possession and told them that the tax authorities would be informed. "If it is established that the cash has not been declared, the family will be prosecuted," Mr. Thiel said.
During the three-hour operation, the customs squad stopped at least 20 cars, several of which were stripped of interior panels or engine parts in the search for cash.
The occupants of four cars were found to be carrying large sums in banknotes. One driver, a respectable-looking entrepreneur, told officers he felt so ashamed that he would institute legal proceedings against himself an option under German law that allows an offender to pay back taxes plus interest to avoid a court appearance. The number of tax-related self-prosecution cases has more than doubled from 10,400 in 1998 to 27,334 last year.
In Germany's Saarland region alone, customs squads netted the equivalent of more than $30 million in cash during the first three months of 2001. Since the beginning of the summer, the officers have been finding up to $5 million a month. Yet the customs squad was adamant that its spot checks only scratched the surface of a widespread illicit transfer of cash.
A steady downpour brought last week's operation to an abrupt halt. "There are limits to what we are prepared to do," declared one of the squad's soaked officers. "My advice to any cash smuggler is: Do it when it's raining."

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