Easy Money: Got Change For A Million Silver Dollars?
Two Germans were caught in an Austria mountain town with 500 million dollars in counterfeit banknotes. It's one of the biggest hauls of counterfeit dollars in Europe. But the culprits say they thought the 1 million dollar bills were real. Early next year an Austrian court must decide their fate.
He dreamed of living the life of a millionaire -- with a villa in the woods and an Aston Martin V12, preferably in Quantum Silver, in the garage. Once a moderately successful provincial attorney, he had decided that he was no longer willing to simply look on while others made their fortunes with major business deals.
But his dreams of that villa, that Aston Martin and all the other trappings of wealth have vanished into thin air. Ralf Hölzen, 46, a tall, slender man with graying hair is sitting in a café frequented by retirees in the town of Goch in western Germany. On his plates sits a slice of Black Forest cake and he is removing the canned cream from atop his coffee. Once again Hölzen is living with his parents, only two blocks from the café.
At the end of January, Hölzen will face trial in a district court in Feldkirch, in Austria's Vorarlberg region. Austrian prosecutors have filed charges against him and his accomplice, Dietmar B., 52, for attempted fraud and possession of counterfeit banknotes.
Arrested Holding $202 Million in Counterfeit Bills
Almost a year ago, Hölzen and B. were arrested in a bank in Austria's Kleinwalsertal ski valley. The duo stands accused of having attempted to exchange $202 million in counterfeit bills. The police also found $291 million more in counterfeit bills in a black Samsonite suitcase the men were carrying.
Technically speaking, it was one of the biggest successes that European police organizations have ever had in the fight against counterfeit US banknotes. But not even the Austrian police are willing to call it a coup. And that's because the defendants lacked both a plan and any professionalism.
Instead, the trial in Feldkirch is more likely to offer a cautionary tale about how, in greedy times, even ordinary people think there is a fast track to wealth. And about how they believed that they could get rich quick through a combination of cunning and a few printed piece of paper; And how they ruined their lives in the process.
"The thing" -- which is what Hölzen now calls the series of events during which he hoped to get rich quick -- began with an unannounced visit in September 2008. Life was not going well for Hölzen at the time. His marriage had failed, and he had lost his license to practice law because of his chaotic financial circumstances. Hölzen owed tens of thousands of Euros in back taxes and he was keeping himself afloat by working as a consultant.
Surprise Visitors Bring a Dodgy Deal
Two men walked into his office one afternoon. One of them, Hendrik van den B., a tall, gaunt older man, was wearing a dark, expensive-looking suit and introduced himself as a Dutch businessman. He looks as though he has money, Hölzen said to himself.
The other man, short and bald, was Dietmar B., from Essen in western Germany who looked much less imposing. According to Hölzen, what B. did not tell him was that he was a machinist, who had been unemployed for a long time and that he had already served prison time for attempted fraud and for his association with a criminal gang that was involved in grand larceny.
The men told Hölzen that he had been recommended to them by a former client and that they wanted him to prepare a purchase agreement for some historic stocks, some of which were American silver certificates. They told him that these silver certificates, which closely resembled ordinary dollar bills, were never used as a conventional form of payment but were traded between banks in the past. And they remained extremely valuable.
Hölzen, who dealt mainly with leases, tax law and traffic offences, had no experience with foreign currency transactions. His new clients may have seemed odd to him but he decided to put any misgivings aside. In the past, he had represented fraudulent investment advisors, the sort to use human greed to their own advantage. And eager to put an end to his own run of bad luck, Hölzen reasoned that what the two men were proposing could be his opportunity to earn a lot of money, and relatively easily.
Hölzen Says all He is Guilty of is Being Naïve
Which is why Hölzen told the men that he was interested in doing more for them than simply preparing legal documents. van den B., who saw Hölzen's proposal as a potential opportunity, gave the former attorney a banknote to examine. Hölzen scanned the bill and e-mailed the image to various acquaintances.
An employee with Julius Bär, a Swiss private bank, promptly replied that the pieces of paper were worthless. But Hölzen did not want to hear this. This deal of a lifetime couldn't possibly be over before it had even begun, he thought. "This is my big chance," he kept telling himself.
That is Hölzen's side of the story anyway. "I was naïve," he admits -- and that is all he will admit too. He continues to insist that he was not the main instigator of the crime with which he is now being charged.
- Part 1: Got Change For A Million Silver Dollars?
- Part 2: Just Add Six Zeros And You Have a Million Dollars
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