Exchange of counterfeit money results in major losses

Joosep Värk
, reporter
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Photo: Politsei

Rainer Viljamaa stepped into the Aia street currency exchange office of Tavid in January of last year, carrying nearly 4.1 million Indian rupees – more precisely 4,096 thousand-rupee notes that he exchanged for close to 54,000 euros. Considering the fact that Tavid has seven offices in Estonia that only handle a single transaction involving rupees a day between them, it was not a common occurrence. Especially considering the sum.

That is why the cashier checked the notes both using a special detector and by hand. The check verified the rupees as genuine, and Viljamaa was handed his money and left.

He returned a few days later, carrying 6,696 thousand-rupee notes or nearly 6.7 million. Once again the notes were checked and came back clean.

The cashier had to check the origin of the money, however, based on the money laundering and terrorism obstruction act. Viljamaa presented the cashier with a contract, according to which he had been given the rupees in exchange for a luxury vehicle – a Mercedes-Benz S63. Since both the contract and the rupees appeared genuine, Tavid handed Viljamaa a little over 87,000 euros.

Woman on holiday arrested

Problems surfaced some time later after Tavid had sold the notes on to one of its partners abroad that had in turn given them to a customer in the form of cash. Checks run by Tavid's partner also found the notes to be legitimate.

The fact that the notes were counterfeit came to light when the woman tried to sell the notes while traveling in India. She was arrested and her trip all but ruined when she tried to exchange currency at a local currency exchange office.

At the same time, Tavid was conducting a subsequent verification of the notes. Member of the supervisory board Meelis Atonen said that while initial checks did not reveal the notes to be counterfeit, subsequent verification managed to establish that was indeed the case. «Unfortunately we had bought in several batches by then. Human error,» Atonen explained.

He said that Tavid has drawn conclusions from the mistake and made some changes. «We had to change the way we operate and have to pay more attention to certain signs. Rupees are not a common currency in our region, which is what caused the accident.» Atonen added that he cannot divulge more details as it might benefit criminals.

Viljamaa was arrested and prosecuted soon after the crime. While both cases seemed straightforward at first, proceedings dragged on due to several reasons. Experts at the Estonian Forensic Science Institute (EKEI) had to check all 10,000 notes individually.

Head of the documents department at EKEI Kairi Kriiska-Maiväli said that the case was quite exceptional for the institute and took a month next to other projects.

She said that the fake rupees could be described as high-level forgeries. «The counterfeit notes have been produced industrially, mimicking the security elements of rupees and using paper very close to the original. The latter aspect was what made the counterfeit notes so difficult to recognize.»

Kriiska-Maiväli said that the Indian rupee is as counterfeit-proof as any other currency in circulation. «You need to have knowledge of security elements to uncover forgeries, tell imitations apart from the real thing,» she said.

Clever forgery of rare notes

Northern District prosecutor Meerika Nimmo also acknowledged the quality of the counterfeit notes. «The money was very craftily counterfeit, which is why the crime was discovered some time after the notes had been presented to the currency exchange office. It is also noteworthy that the currency used was the rupee that is not common in Estonia. This is the first time counterfeit rupees have been found in Estonia. Most discoveries concern counterfeit euros, while criminal activity involving counterfeit money is rare in Estonia,» Nimmo said.

Viljamaa did not tell detectives or the court how he got the money. The latter will probably remain a secret as there have been no similar cases in neighboring countries. Harju County Court found Viljamaa guilty of exchanging counterfeit currency, falsification of a document, and use of a falsified document last week. This means that his contract of purchase and sale was also a forgery.

Viljamaa was sentenced to four years imprisonment with a four and a half year probation period. He was also ordered to pay Tavid nearly 134,000 euros. Authorities seized close to 6,400 euros and more interestingly 60 Georgian laris and 102 Transnistrian rubles from Viljamaa.

Tavid and its partner compensated the woman in whose possession the counterfeit money was discovered.

Atonen said in summary that cases like this happen every three-four years. «It was a very costly lesson for us,» he said.