Athens - Andreas and Emilia Karabalis, who are both 80,
feared their bank in Greece would collapse, so they withdrew their €80 000
($100 000) savings and stashed it at home for safety.
Days later, the thieves came in the night.
"We were sleeping. The two masked burglars came to our
bed and tied us up. They hit us.
"They robbed us - they didn't leave anything, it was
torture," said Emilia, who still trembles when she recalls the attack this
month on the island of Lefkada.
Husband Andreas added: "Our life is black now. They
took our life's savings. We lost everything."
No one knows just how much cash lies stashed in Greek homes,
secreted in cupboards, at the back of the ice-box, beneath the floor or under
the mattress. But by any guess it is well in the billions, and burglars are
after their share of loot which is both highly portable and virtually
impossible to recover.
Greece's debt crisis has plunged it into five straight years
of economic contraction, thrown half of its young people out of work and may
see it ejected from the eurozone.
In the past two years, Greeks have withdrawn from banks more
than €72bn - or close to €7 000 for every man, woman and child in the country.
And much of that has been taken in cash.
No money in robbing banks
Police say that gangs who may have once eyed "hard
targets", - like the banks themselves, or jewellers - are now going after
homes of ordinary people, where there is far less risk and often large stashes
of cash freshly withdrawn from savings accounts.
"Many people have withdrawn their money from the banks
fearing a financial crash, and they either carry it on them, find a hideout at
home or in storage rooms," said national police spokesperson Thanassis
"We urge people to trust the banking system, leave
their money there, or at least in a safe place, not hide it at home, where they
must anyway take the basic security measures," he said.
"Some people don't even lock their doors and
The unexpected bonanza is attracting foreign crime networks,
he said, including two from ex-Soviet Georgia which police dismantled in recent
months, blaming them for 300 burglaries.
Crime is just one hazard for people storing unusually large
hoards of cash, most of which are not insured. There are tales of savings going
up in smoke in fires or, as in one case, being lost when a pensioner withdrew
his life savings - then died suddenly, before telling his family where they
Theft, though, seems the biggest risk and the crime wave has
spread far beyond the big cities into rural areas where robbery was little
Carpenter George Psychogios, 30, withdrew his savings of €8
000 and kept them in his house at Arta, a small town 350km from Athens and
known principally for its Byzantine stone bridge and a 13th-century church.
"I hid the money in two different places before leaving
for a trip. When I came back it was all gone," he said. "They broke
into the house through a balcony door and they took it all."
"We used to sleep outside with the doors unlocked. Now
we don't feel safe even when we lock up. They break into homes, shops,
businesses. There is a surge in robberies here."
In Iraklion, a working class neighbourhood of Athens, local
people say some thieves have become so brazen that they often prowl in broad
daylight, even when a family is in.
"We were sitting on the front veranda chatting when
they jumped from the roof to the back yard and got into the house," said
pensioner Mattheos Michelakakis, 61.
Before he realised what had happened, they had made off with
his family's gold.
"Burglars hear that people are scared and withdrawing
money and they hit homes randomly hoping they will be lucky," he said.
"I feel like I've been naive. We always used to leave
all the doors open; we had nothing to worry about."
Hoarding in troubled times
According to the central bank, Greeks withdrew €72bn from
bank accounts between January 2010 and March 2012, leaving just €165bn behind.
Since then, withdrawals have accelerated further after an
inconclusive May 6 election led Eurtopean Union leaders to talk openly of Greek
exit from the single currency.
Some of that money was wired abroad and some spent, but much
of it was hidden in homes, either in cash or converted to gold.
If Greece leaves the common currency area, any money left in
Greek banks would probably be turned into drachmas worth a good deal less.
Euros stashed in a box at home would still be euros.
"People have already taken their money out of the bank.
The rest are doing it now because they are afraid we will be kicked out of the
eurozone," said one police officer.
Among cases he said he had come across in the past week: a
man reported €30 000 in cash and gold stolen from a storage room next to his
house and an elderly woman had her life savings of €100 000 stolen from her
That woman's home also happened to be packed full of cartons
of long-life milk and boxes of pasta - in case, she explained, the economic
crisis led to food shortages.
Stashing cash is as old as Greece. The countryside is dotted
with archaeological sites where the ancients squirrelled away their silver
drachmas to hide them from marauding armies. Greek museums are rich in treasure
whose owners never made it back.
"Hiding valuables - small or larger amounts of coins,
golden, silver, even bronze - was very widespread in antiquity, especially in
times of war, crisis or difficulty," said George Riginos of the
Association of Greek Archaeologists.
"Sometimes the owner would perish and this is how they
reached us, hidden in the ground, in holes in the wall, small vases under the
floor or leather bags."
Future archaeologists may yet stumble on some of the buried
treasure of the eurozone crisis of 2012. A senior banker tells the story of a
family on the island of Rhodes who recently visited their local branch, trying
desperately to figure out how much their late father had withdrawn before he
Not trusting the bank, the old man had taken out his life
savings. But he hadn't told anyone where he hid it.
His children were searching everywhere, tearing down walls
in the house trying to find it, but with no luck.