Dogged investigators sniff out the money smugglers

Germany is using sniffer dogs to detect hidden stashes of banknotes in travellers' luggage

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 July, 2013, 5:15am

For German customs officers, the smell of money is best captured by four-legged friends.

The airport in Frankfurt, the country's financial capital, has a trio of German shepherd dogs to help uncover large sums of cash brought into the country illegally.

Seven offenders were caught on average each day last year, with 28 of those apprehended nabbed by the dogs. By June this year, the canine patrol had caught 20 offenders, the customs office said.

Individuals crossing European Union borders must declare cash exceeding €10,000 (HK$99,900). With countries including Switzerland and Luxembourg under pressure to loosen bank secrecy laws and the German government buying up lists of tax dodgers, more money squirrelled away abroad by Germans is flowing back home.

"Your dog at home that can do some tricks is equivalent to a bicycle, while our dog is a Porsche," said Marc Behre, a spokesman for the Bremen customs office, which also has a German shepherd dog trained to detect cash. "We use only the best."

The dogs specialise in detecting euro and US dollar notes. Animals are typically purchased at the age of one, undergo health checks and then receive 18 months of training.

Uwe Wittenberg, who heads the dog squad at Frankfurt airport, said robustness, size, life expectancy and temper determined which breeds were suitable.

Paper to print currencies is made from cotton and linen, rather than wood pulp, and euro notes are all-cotton. The sniffer dogs probably react to the ink used to print on the notes, said Behre, though central banks keep the exact composition of their legal tender a secret.

More than 10 specially trained money-detecting dogs are used in Germany, with as many as four employed in Frankfurt, according to the federal finance office. While dogs have been used to sniff for drugs for more than 40 years, training them to seek cash being carried into the country is more complex and only started in 2010.

"Our dogs are trained to sniff for bundles containing 1,000 individual notes or more, and after learning the character of a smell, they can recall it for as long as four months," Wittenberg said.

European leaders are working on a savings tax pact designed to share data on income earned abroad among its 28 member states, tightening rules and closing loopholes for tax evaders. Separately, anti-tax-evasion discussions with non-EU members including Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Andorra, San Marino and Monaco are under way.

The German states of North Rhine Westphalia and Rhineland-Palatinate have bought data on bank accounts of possible tax evaders, adding pressure on Germans with money stashed abroad. Once a probe has been opened, an offender can no longer turn himself in under an amnesty that has been offered.

German states have received more than 8,300 requests for amnesty this year, for a total of more than 36,000 since 2010, data provided by the states' finance ministries show. North Rhine-Westphalia and Baden-Wuerttemberg combined collected more than €1 billion through amnesty cases, the states said.

"The main reason for this trend, surely, is the fact that the risk of getting found out has increased," said Stienke Kalbfuss, a spokeswoman for Saarland's finance ministry.

Those who take chances and try to bring their money home face the risk of a canine confrontation at the border. In Frankfurt, sniffer dogs need no more than 15 minutes to check about 300 pieces of luggage, a typical airplane-load, for smuggled goods. The animals can check out as many as eight jets during a shift.

While training for the character of a smell takes only five weeks, detecting cash is much harder for the animals than sniffing for cocaine or explosives, as the smell of money varies more.

Lai See is on holiday