By RAPHAEL SATTER
LONDON (AP) â¿¿ At a time when many robberies take place at the click of a mouse, a group of jewel thieves has shown there's still a potential payoff for old-fashioned criminals willing to use disguises, planning and pluck to nab their loot.
Monday's theft of some $50 million worth of diamonds from the tarmac of Brussels' international airport is a "huge blip on the radar," said retired FBI agent Bill Rehder, who spent more than three decades on Los Angeles' bank robbery squad.
"You can almost liken it to the meteor that hit in Russia," he said, referring to the space rock which exploded last week over the city of Chelyabinsk, injuring hundreds. "These things happen so infrequently, but when they do happen it's a huge story."
It's also the type of story that complicates trends that have seen many crimes â¿¿ particularly those targeting banks â¿¿ jump from the world of brandished weapons and ransom notes to a universe of Trojan software and password-stealing computer programs.
In several Western countries, robberies have fallen as banks have installed bullet-proof glass, access-control vestibules and cash boxes rigged with paint or glue. Rehder said that, in the United States, tougher sentencing for criminals and societal changes have also led to a drop in bank robberies, which shrank from 8,516 in 2001 to 5,086 in 2011.
That trend has been echoed across the Atlantic, with the British Bankers' Association recording an even more dramatic fall in the number of raids, from 232 to 66 in the same period. Europe-wide figures also show a decrease in the number of bank robberies.
Meanwhile, cybercriminals have stepped in to steal some of the money their gun-wielding colleagues have left behind.
Global figures are hard to come by, but the amounts in play can be huge. In 2010, the FBI announced the unraveling of an online organization that had raked in roughly $70 million through a vast network of hackers, money mules, and front companies. Dozens were arrested across the U.S., Britain, and Eastern Europe.