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Europe May Ban The €500 Note Because It's Only Used By Criminals

Cash, unlike electronic transactions, leaves no paper trail.

Europe May Ban The €500 Note Because It's Only Used By Criminals

In Spain, one popular name for the €500 is the "Bin Laden."

Photos: Claudio Divizia via Shutterstock

Europe wants to ban the €500 note, and in a time where governments seem inclined to lie about everything, the rationale seems both honest and clear. They want to stop criminals from dealing in cash, and high-denomination notes like the €500 (around $565) make "black" money easier to handle.

In Spain, one popular name for the €500 is the "Bin Laden," because everyone knows it exists, but nobody has ever seen one. And Spain, says the Guardian's Jennifer Rankin, is one of the countries behind the ban, partly thanks to a Chinese businessman Gao Ping, currently being prosecuted for laundering up to $335 million a year from his network of 4,000 Chinese bazaars, which sell plastic junk from almost every city street. When he was arrested, Ping had around $14 million in his home, in cash, in €100, €200, and €500 bills.

The U.K., says Rankin, already stopped circulating the €500 note, on the grounds that it was "almost entirely for criminal purposes." (The Euro isn't an official currency in the U.K., but there is plenty of it around).

Even when dodgy cash is discovered, it's hard to tie it to a crime. Cash, unlike electronic transactions, leaves no paper trail.

"Our frustration from a law enforcement perspective is that […] in many jurisdictions it is impossible to provide sufficient evidence to satisfy judicial authorities of a link between suspicious cash detections and criminality," Europol's Jennifer MacLeod told the Guardian. In other words, the reason criminals still favor cash is because it is still the most anonymous and invisible way to transact business.

France has already banned cash transactions over €1,000 ($1,130), and Spain, too, limits large transactions. If you want to buy something like an iPad Pro tablet in Paris, you have to use a credit or debit card or you're breaking the law.

This ban on high-value cash transactions, though, has little to do with criminality, and everything to do with tax, and tracking what law-abiding citizens spend. If you're already carrying €1 million in €500 bills (which apparently fits nicely into a regular laptop case), then you're probably not worried that the international assassin you're about to pay off will report you to the cops for paying in cash. But for you and me, the policy makes it harder for us to live our legally conducted lives with any anonymity.

Rankin says that Germany and Austria still favor cash—more than half of all transactions are made with it. In Germany, it's almost impossible to use a credit card anywhere away from major chain stores. Even supermarket chains don't accept them. The options are cash, or an EC (electronic cash) card, which pulls direct from your bank account, avoiding the transaction fees of credit card companies like Visa and MasterCard.

The €500 probably will disappear. After all, who needs it—in France, any more than two of them together are useless. And this is how cash will disappear—bit by bit. It's unlikely cash will ever be banned outright, but it can be made so inconvenient that nobody will use it. Except for people for whom the anonymity still outweighs the annoyances. Like criminals.

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