Bombs, car chases and ‘free money’: Dutch gangs blow up German cash machines

It took five men less than two minutes — and a lot of brute force — to steal a six-digit sum of euros in cash.

At 2.30am on a Thursday late last month, they planted bombs beside four cashpoints inside a bank lobby in a sleepy Frankfurt suburb. After a series of blasts, they seized the money from the rubble and drove away at high speed in an Audi S6. 

The raid was part of a crime wave that has swept through Germany for more than two years, terrorising residents with night-time detonations from big cities to small towns and villages. Some 496 cash machines were blown up last year, 27 per cent more than in 2021, the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) said. Daniel Muth, deputy head of Hesse’s state criminal police office, said: “The attacks have become ever more professional.”

The country has become Europe’s ground zero for ATM attackers, who have exploited a fragmented banking system and a decentralised police force — and Germans’ marked preference for cash over cards or digital payments. With more than 55,000 machines stocked with high-denomination banknotes to feed that demand, the average sum seized in a bombing raid last year hit €100,000. That pushed up the financial toll by 53 per cent from a year earlier to €30mn, BKA said.

“Bombing attacks on cashpoints in Germany are modern-day bank robberies,” said Muth, who said such heists had become “too easy” for professional criminal groups able to target remote or poorly protected ATMs.

Workers remove the rubble after an ATM was blown up at a bank near Frankfurt in May © Max Schwarz/Reuters

Most of the culprits are Dutch men, according to senior German police officials. The typical plofkraaker, a term coined from the Dutch words for explosion and robbery, is between 18 and 35 years old, has roots in the Moroccan-Dutch community and lives in Utrecht, where cash-machine raiding is a growth industry. Law enforcement officials estimate that up to 1,000 individuals in that area are linked to ATM raids. 

The decline of cashpoints in the Netherlands and France, and the equipping of remaining machines with glue protection systems that can convert banknotes into a worthless brick of paper, has shifted the criminals’ attention to Germany, police officials said.

Germans have been far more reluctant to go digital when it comes to payments than their European neighbours — more than 50 per cent of people told a recent survey they prefer to use cash when shopping — leaving bank branches similarly wedded to physical banknotes.

States close to the Netherlands such as North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) are bearing the brunt of attacks this year.

North Rhine-Westphalia is on the frontline of cash machine attacks by Dutch gangs – attempted and completed ATM demolitions in 2023, as of July 5

The ATM busters take considerable risks. They handle highly explosive materials that damage bank branches and machines, occasionally causing themselves serious injuries.

Their getaways are similarly reckless, with the culprits speeding away at up to 300km an hour. “Sometimes they switch off their lights, or go on the motorway the wrong way,” said Timo Göttlich, head of a special task force at Hesse’s state criminal police office.

Often, the boot of the vehicle is stocked with plastic canisters holding hundreds of litres of fuel to avoid refuelling stops, said Muth. He said police chases often had to be aborted to avoid the potential for a crash, while firing at getaway vehicles would risk an explosion.

“Those vehicles are effectively rolling bombs,” he added.

A dark Audi standing on a motorway slip road with an open trunk which is packed with white plastic canisters that hold fuel
Fuel canisters in the trunk of an Audi stopped by German police after an attack on an ATM near Frankfurt in April © Polizeipräsidium Westhessen – Wiesbaden

Policing alone has proven insufficient. “Since 2015, there have been more than 200 arrests, but the overall effect on the criminal activity has been very limited,” said Achim Schmitz, senior police officer at NRW’s state criminal police office in Düsseldorf. “We do need a joint effort by the police and the banking industry to root out this crime.” 

With each of the 16 German states running its own decentralised force, law enforcement authorities are struggling to devise a coherent, nationwide strategy. The country’s banking system is also fragmented, with no fewer than 1,500 independent lenders. That makes it difficult to roll out swift improvements to ATM safety standards at a national level.

“Due to its federal structure, the response in Germany may be a bit more complex than in other European countries,” said Schmitz.

The Dutch attackers are hard to pin down. Many are organised in informal networks and co-operate on an ad hoc basis. They analyse failed attempts and arrests to learn from past mistakes, making them still more elusive, said Schmitz. “The criminals are highly professional and act in a very disciplined way,” he said.

In Hesse and NRW, police forces have upped their game, urging banks to lock their lobbies at night and use high-quality CCTV. They are encouraged to install smokescreens that blanket the scene of an explosion with smoke and make banknotes hard to find in the rubble. Federal and regional government officials are threatening new laws forcing banks to protect ATMs better if the sector does not improve.

Chart showing number of cashpoints per 100,000 citizens – Germans’ love of cash requires a lot of ATMs

Yet glue protection systems have not yet been authorised for use in Germany because of their health and safety risks, and the banking industry is sceptical that it can win the arms race.

Deutsche Bank is investing “heavily” in making its ATMs safer, but its head of cash management René Devaux said “there is no golden bullet” because the industry faced highly sophisticated organised crime groups who had a “desire to get money for free”.

Those groups are quick to adapt: for example, they switched from using gas to solid explosives after ATMs were fortified. While seeking to combat the attacks, banks say they must also limit potential harm to clients and staff through the accidental activation of protection systems.

“It does not make economic sense to turn every ATM into Fort Knox,” said Jörg Schmiese, director at the Association of German Banks.

Video description

Three men use petrol stored in canisters to refuel their getaway car after an ATM attack in Hesse

Three men use petrol stored in canisters to refuel their getaway car after an ATM attack in Hesse © Hesse criminal police office

Three men use petrol stored in canisters to refuel their getaway car after an ATM attack in Hesse

In Hesse, police have started to think like ATM attackers. A task force identified high-risk locations and mapped likely escape routes, including junctions and motorways that police should block immediately after a blast. 

This has yielded some spectacular results. Within minutes after the ATM bombing in Frankfurt in late June, police blocked a nearby motorway and junctions. A helicopter chased the car, and a dog squad was mobilised. The gangsters promptly ran into a police roadblock where their Audi’s tyres were slashed by a spike belt.

The car then crashed into a police vehicle and the assailants’ attempts to escape on foot were quickly foiled. Four Dutch men aged between 27 and 32 are being held in pre-trial detention in Germany. Hours after the arrests, Dutch police raided their flats in the Utrecht area.

“Our success rate in clearing the cases is not that bad,” said Göttlich. Police have also built a growing database of the attackers’ DNA samples. “We often know who the culprits are and then it is just a matter of time until we get them,” Göttlich added.

Prosecutors and judges have begun to put ATM attackers on trial for attempted murder, punishable by up to 15 years in jail. They point to the extreme danger for residents and passers-by when cash machines are blown up. A 33-year-old German citizen who masterminded four ATM blasts was sentenced this year to nine and a half years in prison.

“We have been extremely lucky so far that nobody has been severely injured or even killed,” said Göttlich.

Frankfurter Sparkasse, the savings bank whose branch was attacked in June, monitors its cashpoints through CCTV from a central control room. But so far this has yielded little success. Since November, one in 10 of its branches across Frankfurt has been taken out by ATM bombings. The damage caused has been so bad that none of the branches have reopened.

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