In today’s world of fast-paced technological development and heightened security, it’s not uncommon to believe that big-money bank heists are a thing of the past—especially now that cash is no longer king. Believe it or not, however, large-sum bank robberies and jewel heists still occur around the world. The means, method, and of course the money that follows these massive thefts are always intriguing. Some of the planning is creative and daring, and sometimes bizarre. Some thieves plan for years and others for mere weeks. Often, the perpetrators get caught in the act, or soon after, though many are quite successful, with much of the cash still unaccounted for.
To paint an intriguing landscape of what big theft in the modern technological era looks like, Stacker compiled a list of the largest bank heists or robberies from the last 25 years, ranked in order of theft value (or attempted theft value) adjusted for 2018 U.S. dollars.
Date: Feb. 28, 1997
Location: Hollywood, CA
Estimated heist amount: $1.2 million
This failed robbery and subsequent shootout is often cited as the basis for the heavy arming of local police departments with military-style rifles and equipment. Would-be robbers Larry Phillips Jr. and Emil Mătăsăreanu had previously carried out two successful robberies of local banks using military-grade weapons and equipment. This attempt was their third and last, as the bandits were killed in the firefight that resulted after the bungled burglary.
The LAPD was unprepared to respond to robbers armed with military-grade assault weapons. As the pair entered the building, Mătăsăreanu fired at the bulletproof security doors between the lobby and vaults, which fell open. Much to their dismay, the safes contained far less cash than they had estimated. Frustrated, Phillips fired into the vault, destroying some of the $350,000 that it contained. The duo seized approximately $300,000, containing dye packs that exploded, ruining the bills. The two men then attempted to leave the building, firing at police, civilians, and even the police helicopter stationed above.
The police officers returned the fire, but their 9-millimeter pistols could not penetrate the thieves’ body armor. The pair attempted to flee to their getaway vehicle, and LAPD cops were instructed to not attempt to detain the two, citing their disadvantage in firepower. The SWAT team engaged the robbers as they made their getaway and after a slow car chase, an attempted carjacking, and more than 1,700 rounds of gunfire exchanged, the two men were fatally shot.
Date: Dec. 30, 2007
Location: Kerala, India
Estimated heist amount: $1.35 million
This Bank of Kerala heist took its inspiration from Bollywood film “Dhoom.” In the movie, robbers dig a hole through the floor of a bank, making off with millions in loot. This heist was led by Vaniyam Purakkal Joseph, known by the alias “Babu,” who rented the vacant restaurant storefront beneath the Bank of Kerala office and pretended to be renovating the space. Over a long holiday weekend, the team cracked through the floor of the bank’s strong room and used glass-cutting tools to open the iron safes.
The bandits made a hasty escape and hid out in nearby Kozhikode. Kerala police swiftly took up the investigation, and found the robbers had attempted to mislead the investigation by scrawling a common saying of the Indian communist sect on the vault wall. The police were able to intercept a particularly secretive phone call between the perpetrators, and raided the hideout, capturing the offenders and recovering 90% of the stolen goods.
Date: December 2017–January 2018
Location: Keflavik, Iceland
Estimated heist amount: $2 million, with potentially more collateral damage
In a truly 21st century-styled tech-boosted theft, a gang led by suspected mastermind Sindri Thor Stefansson raided four Icelandic data server warehouses and stole 600 powerful computers and accessories worth approximately $2 million which they used to mine Bitcoin. Several large data firms have moved to Iceland in recent years, citing the inexpensive hydroelectric and geothermal energy used to power the massive computers needed to store data or mine Bitcoin. The facilities were often left open to data firm personnel to allow them to adjust and monitor their equipment. Taking advantage of this, the group orchestrated four computer thefts but were eventually captured and identified by the CCTV used by tech firm Advania, whose server facilities were the targets of three of the four robberies.
More than 22 people have been arrested in conjunction with the investigation. Stefansson, who was being detained in a low-security Icelandic prison, escaped from custody in April 2018 and hopped on a flight to Sweden using an alias. Icelandic authorities issued an international arrest warrant, but Stefansson is nowhere to be found. The equipment is still missing, and data investors fear it has already been used to illegally mine cryptocurrencies around the world.
Estimated heist amount: $2.6 million
Now known colloquially as the “Nigerian Prince Scammers” or the “419 Scammers,” this worldwide gang of fraudsters crafted increasingly credible-sounding and well-informed emails to coerce the recipients into forking over cash via wire transfer, check, or loaded gift cards. The thieves used a variety of techniques, including inventing romantic relationships with their targets, convincing their victims to receive and ship packages or return merchandise, requesting their contacts to deposit fraudulent checks, and other crafty ideas. Six Nigerian nationals of a particularly egregious gang of 20 fraudsters were finally extradited to Gulfport, Mississippi, in early 2018, where they awaited trial for international wire fraud.
Unfortunately, the list of the gang’s victims reaches into the thousands, with the amount of cash stolen from each ranging from $2,400 up to $55,000. Given the dilated timeframe in which this fraud took place, and the sheer number of victims involved, it is doubtful that most individuals will ever be reunited with their cash. A worldwide sting called Operation WireWire was conducted in June of 2018, leading to the arrest of 74 connected individuals and the recovery of $2.5 million in cash. The sting also interrupted scheduled wire transfers valued at $14 million.
Date: March to April 2007
Location: Handan, China
Estimated heist amount: $9.5 million
Two bank vault managers were inspired and emboldened by their manager, who stole $33,000, gambled it on Chinese lottery tickets, won a large prize, and reimbursed the vault without incident. Ren Xiaofeng and Ma Xiangjing were complicit in the original robbery and reimbursement, and decided to pull it off again on a much larger scale. Throughout March and April of 2007, the pair stole $5.4 million from the bank and gambled nearly the entire sum on lottery tickets. Sadly, luck was not in their favor.
Desperately wanting to win big and replace the original stolen sum, the duo stole an additional six cash boxes worth an extra $3.5 million on April 14, and gambled it yet again on lottery tickets, netting them only $16,000 in earnings. The theft was finally reported on April 16, after bank managers noticed the missing millions. The pair was jailed for over two years before being dealt death sentences.
Date: Feb. 27, 2009
Location: Dublin, Ireland
Estimated heist amount: $11 million
As the largest bank robbery in Irish history, this event is often held up as an example of systemic security failure by bank employees. The would-be bandits employed a tactic used by the Irish Republican Army: “tiger kidnapping.” Shane Travers, a subordinate employee of the bank, was awaiting the arrival of his girlfriend and her mother at his girlfriend’s home when they were all kidnapped by six disguised individuals. The group was held together overnight, and had their cell phones confiscated. Travers was sent to his workplace the following morning with a cellphone. He was instructed to collect different denominations of cash, and showed his colleagues photos of his loved ones being held at gunpoint in order to persuade them to allow him to take the money.
Employees acquiesced, and assisted Travers in loading out four laundry bags stuffed with cash that he subsequently turned over to one of the gang members at a nearby railway station. An hour later, the mother and daughter escaped, at which point Travers notified police. Authorities were incredulous that so many of the bank’s employees could be aware of the robbery and not notify police. Investigation into the events led to the arrests of the seven gang members who orchestrated the attack, but only $2 million of the stolen cash was recovered.
Date: April 5, 2004
Location: Stavanger, Norway
Estimated heist amount: $13.5 million
The largest robbery in Norway’s history is also considered the most salacious. In the decade preceding the incident, Norwegian police had fired a total of 31 gunshots. During this heist, the police shot 48 times. David Toska, a notorious Norwegian robber and the brain behind the heist, made the attempt after discussing blind spots in security of the NOKAS cash-handling facility with a colleague. He collected a gang of associates, former inmates, and childhood friends, and started planning. In order to delay police response, smoke grenades, a burning truck, and tire spikes were strategically placed around police headquarters.
The group attempted to gain access to the building, but had not anticipated the bullet-proof glass, and tried to break it with a sledgehammer, battering ram, and more than 100 rounds of ammunition, the sound of which allowed all the building’s employees to flee or seek shelter. After shooting and killing a police lieutenant, the crew made a successful getaway. The subsequent investigation revealed that police had knowledge of the possible robbery attempt that went without response. Toska was later apprehended in Spain, and confessed to the crime. The event is seen as one of the most costly for Norway, whose government paid more than $20 million in compensation to the victims and families involved.
Date: Oct. 4, 1997
Location: Charlotte, North Carolina
Estimated heist amount: $25.9 million
Now known as the basis for the film “Masterminds,” a comedy about the robbery starring Zach Galifianakis, this robbery was one of the largest cash grabs in U.S. history. It was also an inside job, and started as a joke. David Ghantt worked as a vault guard for Loomis Fargo, and the “jokes” about stealing from the safe became all too real at the end of a shift one evening. Ghantt loaded up a van with fistfuls of banded bills, and made a break for it, escaping to Mexico. His partner in crime, childhood friend Steve Chambers, helped with the logistics of managing a large stash of cash. They might have gotten away with it were it not for Chambers’ tell-tale signs of lifestyle upgrades and bribery. Known locally as the “gang that couldn’t steal straight,” more than 20 people were involved in the FBI’s investigation of the crime.
Date: Sept. 12, 1997
Location: Los Angeles, California
Estimated heist amount: $29 million
As with many large-scale robberies, the Dunbar Armored Robbery was an inside job. Allen Pace, a regional safety inspector for the armored car depot, was the mastermind. Along with five childhood friends, Pace planned the attack over months of routine inspections. He had timed security cameras, logged which bags contained the highest denominations of bills, and tracked when the security guards took their lunch breaks in order to create the perfect opportunity. Since the vault was left open on Friday evenings due to the sheer volume of cash coming into the facility, that’s when the group struck. Once inside, they avoided security cameras and planted themselves in the building’s cafeteria, ambushing every guard as they came in for lunch before any alarm could be triggered. Within a half-hour, the crew packed out millions of large bills and made a clean getaway. Authorities realized it must have been an inside job, and heavily scrutinized Pace to no avail.
The case went unsolved for nearly two years as the group laundered the cash through real estate transactions and shell businesses, but eventually a member of the gang got sloppy and made a real estate transaction using cash still bound in federal currency straps, which are traceable. Cash and valuables amounting to $6 million were recovered, but the vast majority of the cash has never been found. Pace was sentenced to 24 years in prison.
Date: Dec. 20, 2004
Location: Belfast, Northern Ireland
Estimated heist amount: $45 million
Believed to be perpetrated by the notorious Irish Republican Army, this heist was coordinated and well-planned. The evening before the robbery, three important bank directors and their families were taken hostage and briefed on their roles in the upcoming burglary. One bank director, Christopher Ward, complied with a scheduled “test” run and delivered a duffel bag holding $1 million to a gang member staged at a nearby bus stop. At the close of business, thieves arrived at the building and were let inside by the bank directors. The robbers made their way to the cash storage area, where an unusually large sum of cash was staged to fill ATMs for the impending holiday shopping season. The group fled shortly before midnight, and called for the strategic release of the hostaged families.
The bank alerted the authorities of the theft the following day, and announced that it would be recalling the majority of its banknotes and reissuing newly colored and updated versions that would slowly replace the stolen notes from circulation. Allegations swirled around the individuals involved, insinuating that the theft was perpetrated by bank and local officials on political motivations. One of the prime actors, Ward, was accused of orchestrating the robbery and later acquitted. A small amount of cash related to the robbery was retrieved from a nearby country club, and a local financial advisor was charged with laundering approximately $5 million of the missing funds.
Date: December 2012 and February 2013
Estimated heist amount: $48 million
A well-coordinated worldwide network of criminals was to blame for the hacking of prepaid debit cards and subsequent simultaneous withdrawal of cash using ATMs around the globe. Skilled hackers made their way into the databases of several prepaid ATM card companies, eliminated the withdrawal limits, and created new access codes for cards. Some of the hackers then transferred the new data and access codes to any card with a magnetic strip, and deployed crews to raid ATMs. These smaller crews would then take a cut of the proceeds, returning the rest to the hackers. Cells of this criminal network existed around the world, and the U.S.’s prime perpetrator was Alberto Yusi Lajud-Pena of the Dominican Republic, who had recruited other Dominicans to make the raid.
Although no individuals lost money, the banks that support the pre-paid cards were forced to make claims on their insurance for the loss. Lajud-Pena was never prosecuted, as he was found dead with a suitcase containing $100,000, most likely a robbery gone wrong. Eight other individuals in New York were arrested in association with the worldwide crime, and charged with fraudulently withdrawing nearly $3 million in cash from thousands of ATMs around the city.
Date: Aug. 6, 2005
Location: Fortaleza, Brazil
Estimated heist amount: $55 million
The largest heist in Brazil’s history was a mission that by most accounts was quite successful. In the preceding months, a team of robbers tunneled more than 250 feet underneath two city blocks beneath the Banco Central’s vault, shuttling the dirt away from the property in vans during the day. No bank security alarms were triggered and the theft wasn’t discovered until the bank opened for business the following Monday. The cash was uninsured, and largely untraceable due to the non-sequential serial numbers on the bills.
In the following months, five persons of interest were arrested and half a million dollars recovered, but several of the other robbers were brought to justice by jealous parties in the know from the community. Over the next year, several of the key players including mastermind Luis Fernando Ribeiro were murdered or ransomed for their stake of the claim.
Date: Sept. 1, 1997
Location: Zurich, Switzerland
Estimated heist amount: $55 million
Planned and executed with impressive precision, the Swiss Post Heist is what one might expect from a Hollywood-inspired robbery: five masked men, a white van disguised as a service vehicle, an unsuspecting security guard, and an open and shut theft of boxes and boxes of unregistered and uninsured cash. It all went off without a hitch, until the investigation started. The five perpetrators were caught within a month due to sloppy preparation. Thieves had drunk coffee next door to the robbery location minutes before, leaving DNA evidence. The getaway car was set aflame, but done so right next to the fire station. The crooks were also unprepared for the physical haul of cash, moving it around in trash bags and shoe boxes until they spent it lavishly and flamboyantly, gaining far too much attention and getting caught.
Date: Aug. 6, 2009
Location: London, UK
Estimated heist value: $78 million
This heist was calculated down to the smallest detail, and if conducted as planned, should have remained unsolved. A network led by Aman Kassaye planned this attack, which involved ornate makeup, wigs, and prosthetic masks as disguises. The perpetrators who executed the raid hired a makeup artist and told her they were participating in a pop music video that day.
The disguised men then took a taxi to the shop near closing time, ordering the clerk to fill the suitcases they’d brought with the 42 displayed jewelry items. The clerk was then used as a hostage until the men escaped the building. The two then used a series of getaway cars to flee the scene, but one of the cars crashed into a taxi, wedging one of the attackers’ mobile phones between the carseats. The phone was their undoing, and led to the swift arrest of the perpetrators. Although the diamonds had been laser-engraved with Graff’s logo, it is believed the pieces were re-cut and sold to obscure their origin.
Date: Feb. 21, 2006
Location: Tonbridge, UK
Estimated heist amount: $83 million
The largest robbery in British history can be attributed to Paul Allen, a cage fighter known as “The Enforcer.” Allen, along with a handful of other fighters began the first phase of the heist posed as police officers and pulled over the manager of the Securitas depot, Colin Dixon, who they held hostage along with his family. Using the family as collateral, the robbers locked the Dixon family and other employees in the vaults while they socked away the cash. At least 10 people were involved in this heist, which took eight months to plan. Arrests were made soon after the event, thanks to DNA evidence and a messy trail of getaway vehicles.
The biggest break in the case came when a digital recording was found by police on the cell phone of one of the accused robbers: the plot being reviewed at length by Allen. More than 15 people were arrested within the following year, with $25 million recovered.
Date: Dec. 5, 2008
Location: Paris, France
Estimated heist amount: $108 million
Dubbed the “steal of the century” at the time, this Parisian jewel heist had all the trappings of the well-imbedded international thief gang dubbed the Pink Panthers. The group of four individuals were attired in wigs and dresses, and entered the exclusive jewelry store near closing. Security guards were confused and distracted by the eccentric costumes, allowing the thieves to pull pistols from their handbags. The burglars then swiftly cleaned out every display case.
The thieves were apparently familiar with the building, and promptly cleaned out the rear stockrooms as well. The group made a clean getaway without a single gunshot fired. The mastermind of the robbery was Douadi Yahiaoui, who had just been released from prison owing to similar heists. Yahiaoui was arrested after some of the stolen gems were found in his home. Although much of the loot was never recovered, a plastic container hidden within cement and mortar containing $22 million in jewelry from the heist was discovered in a nearby Paris home.
Date: May 20, 2010
Location: Paris, France
Estimated heist amount: $133 million
In the early morning hours, a masked intruder cut a padlock, broke an elevated window, and made his way into the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris. The alarm system at the famed museum had been offline for a few weeks. Three guards patrolled the property at all hours, but none noticed the acrobatic “Spider-Man Burglar,” Vjeran Tomic. The following morning, five prized pieces were found to be missing from their frames, having been meticulously removed to avoid damage. The stolen works included paintings from Picasso, Matisse, and Braque. The burglar had managed to knock out a security camera, but was caught on another, though the image was too distant to be identified. Although it’s difficult to place dollar values on irreplaceable artwork, prosecutors valued the missing pieces between $100 million and $650 million.
Tomic was brought to the attention of authorities by an anonymous tip, and the sheer audacity of his reputation. He fancied himself a prolific cat burglar and was known by the police for his ability to scale buildings and deftly sneak into locations. When asked why he stole the paintings knowing they could never be sold, Tomic replied that he stole them because he liked them.
Date: July 29, 2013
Location: Cannes, France
Estimated heist amount: $136 million
This theft is considered to be the largest jewel robbery in history, completed in just under 100 seconds. It was so brazen that authorities now believe the act was perpetrated by a member of the Pink Panthers, an elusive gang of thieves allegedly responsible for more than $500 million in thefts since its formation in 2003. The theft began in broad daylight, when an individual wearing a motorcycle helmet and bandana walked into the Carlton International Hotel in Cannes during the city’s acclaimed film festival.
He continued into a poorly-guarded room being used to exhibit a large collection of Leviev diamonds before the exhibit was slated to open for the day, just as the gems were being loaded into their secure display cases. The robber held the three exhibitors at gunpoint as he snatched a briefcase brimming with exceptionally high-quality diamonds. The thief then jumped through a window to the street to make his getaway, and was not pursued. The crime remains unsolved, and a $1.3 million reward is still posted for tips that lead to the recovery of any of the stolen items.
Date: Feb. 15–16, 2003
Location: Antwerp, Belgium
Estimated heist amount: $138 million
Employing a well-regarded burglary technique known to underground criminal syndicates, Italian jewel thief Leonardo Notarbartolo rented an office in the Antwerp Diamond District, passing himself off as a wealthy Italian diamond dealer. Over the previous 18 months, he and his team prepared and rehearsed their movements for the heist, including mocking up a replica vault.
Notarbartolo generated rapport with the security staff, which allowed him access to the vault. Over a series of months, the thief hid minuscule cameras and wireless transceivers about the vault and vault entrance to capture the sequence of codes needed to open the three-foot-wide door. A team of masterminds worked to disarm the other protective technology. A master locksmith called the “King of Keys” made an exact replica of the vault key, and another burglar managed to evade the magnetic door device, allowing them entrance. They forced open more than 100 safe deposit boxes and stole their contents. No alarms had been triggered, and authorities would not be notified until the following Monday.
The team stopped before the Italian border to burn their trash in a field, but one of the accomplices left some evidence, including a partially eaten salami sandwich, which led authorities back to Notarbartolo. Although he has not been convicted of the crime, he was arrested and imprisoned for his association with this crime and others. The majority of the valuables were never recovered.
Date: April 2, 2015
Location: London, UK
Estimated heist amount: $280 million
A gang of seven elderly men successfully raided an underground safe deposit facility, walking away with hundreds of millions of dollars. A group of four men entered the facility using an elevator shaft during a holiday weekend the evening after a large underground electrical fire captivated the attention of authorities. Using wheeled garbage cans and a drill, the group stole more than $200 million in gems and valuables from 70 safe deposit boxes.
Although security alarms were triggered, authorities admitted that the response protocol was not followed correctly. After a painstakingly slow investigation, the primary suspect in the investigation was revealed to be 77-year-old Brian Reader, a well-known thief from decades earlier. The robbery is now the basis for the 2018 film “King of Thieves” starring Michael Caine.
Date: Oct. 1, 2004
Location: London, UK
Estimated heist amount: $297 million
This failed attempt to steal nearly $300 million from accounts based around the globe is a case study in following directions. Meticulously planned for years by a group of six, the elaborate international wire fraud attempt involved installing key-logging software around the world, tracking international bank transfers, and stealing account and security data.
The mastermind of the robbery, Hugh Rodley, collected a gang of associates trained in hacking and robbery. On that evening, a few of his would-be robbers entered into the bank and filed the requisite forms to transfer funds from 10 different bank accounts from Hong Kong to Dubai using the customary SWIFT wire transfer paperwork, but were stumped when it came to one pesky reference number that was left blank. On the following day, when it became evident that the mis-filled forms had been declined, robbers re-entered the bank to grab even bigger amounts of cash from an array of banking customers, including Toshiba International. On Monday when the bank opened for regular hours, the fraud department was alerted to the improperly filled forms and reviewed security tapes, revealing Rodley’s team breaking into the building the second time.
Date: July 11, 2007
Location: Baghdad, Iraq
Estimated heist amount: $374 million
This is yet another instance of bank guards grabbing and going. The two guards of this private Iraqi bank normally slept overnight at the facility. On the morning of the heist, the pair was nowhere to be found, nor was $300 million in U.S. currency as well as a large volume of of Iraqi dinars. It was not immediately clear to authorities why the private bank had so much U.S. cash on hand, but ever since the U.S. invasion, most banking had been conducted in cash. It’s believed the two guards were connected to Iraqi militants, and planned to take the cash for terrorism efforts, which explains their ability to move through Baghdadi checkpoints without much trouble. The funds have never been recovered, and the perpetrators never brought to justice.
Date: Jan. 19, 2018
Location: Tokyo, Japan
Estimated heist amount: $500 million
Digital technology offers a whole new landscape for would-be opportunists to make a quick cash grab. With the increasing popularity of cryptocurrencies, security protocols have been woefully inadequate in keeping up with the demand for such valuable digital data. Systems for tracking ownership of these crypto-coins will show the IP address and account name of the owner, but personal information is not retained on the coin transfers.
In early 2018, an unknown individual or individuals hacked into the accounts of NEM currency holders and raided their “hot wallets,” or crypto-cash that is kept accessible for use in external markets and online, netting a swift $500 million. Security measures on the transfer failed, and the transfers did not require multiple signatures or authentications in order to confirm the transactions. After the security failures, the account responsible for receiving the stolen cash was frozen, making liquifying its value fairly difficult. The perpetrator has not been found, but Coincheck officials received extreme scrutiny for their lackadaisical business practices.
Date: February 2014
Location: Tokyo, Japan
Estimated heist value: $509 million
Several questions still surround the world’s largest cryptocurrency hack of exchange giant Mt. Gox, and its subsequent bankruptcy. Simultaneously announcing the hack and the bankruptcy filing, Mt. Gox CEO Mark Karpelès told the world that his company had lost approximately 7% of the world’s bitcoins, blaming it on computer system weakness and hackers. In the months prior many customers had complained about their deposits not clearing, breaches of contract, and other losses. The company had been in a precarious situation for nearly a year, so fingers pointed to Karpelès.
The theft was eventually proven to be incremental. Although approximately $150 million in coins were recovered in old digital wallets held by Mt. Gox, the vast majority of the bitcoins were lost, spurring a series of lawsuits opened by Mt. Gox customers for damages. Eventually, Karpelès was arrested on other unrelated embezzlement and theft charges. Although no hard evidence implicated the CEO for the crime, most individuals in the know believe his creative valuation and account-creating led to this “loss.”
Date: March 18, 2003
Location: Baghdad, Iraq
Estimated heist amount: $1.4 billion
The largest cash grab in the world was pulled off by an extremely well-known individual: Saddam Hussein. Fearing the impending bombing of Iraq by U.S. forces, Hussein used a basic system to ensure protection of the government’s money. He penned a handwritten note to the Bank of Iraq, which he sent with his son Qusay in order to withdraw the entire vault. Three loads of cash were shuttled back to the presidential palace, but due to Hussein’s autocratic ruler status, it is hard to discern if any actual crime was committed.
The international response, however, was extreme concern. More than half of the cash was recovered from Hussein’s palace by U.S. Forces, but the remainder is still unaccounted for, and is assumed to have been spent on insurgency efforts and terror plots. Given the demise of both Saddam and Qusay Hussein, it is doubtful that the missing cash will ever be recovered, or its paper trail sufficiently traced.