ATHENS (Reuters) - Andreas and Emilia Karabalis, who are both 80, feared their bank in Greece would collapse, so they withdrew their 80,000 euros ($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 euro zone. In the past two years, Greeks have withdrawn from banks more than 72 billion euros - or close to 7,000 euros for every man, woman and child in the country. And much of that has been taken in cash.
Police say that gangs who may have once eyed “hard targets”, - like the banks themselves, or jewelers - are now going after homes of ordinary people, where there is far less risk and often large stashes of cash freshly withdrawn from savings accounts.
“Many people have withdrawn their money from the banks fearing a financial crash, and they either carry it on them, find a hideout at home or in storage rooms,” said national police spokesman Thanassis Kokkalakis.
“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 windows.”
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 were hidden.
Theft, though, seems the biggest risk and the crime wave has spread far beyond the big cities into rural areas where robbery was little known. Carpenter George Psychogios, 30, withdrew his savings of 8,000 euros and kept them in his house at Arta, a small town 350 km (200 miles) 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 neighborhood 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 realized 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.”
According to the central bank, Greeks withdrew 72 billion euros from bank accounts between January 2010 and March 2012, leaving just 165 billion behind. Since then, withdrawals have accelerated further after an inconclusive May 6 election led EU 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 euro zone,” said one police officer.
Among cases he said he had come across in the past week: a man reported 30,000 euros in cash and gold stolen from a storage room next to his house and an elderly woman had her life savings of 100,000 euros stolen from her apartment.
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 squirreled 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 euro zone 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 died.
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.
Additional reporting by Dina Kyriakidou; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Alastair Macdonald