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Meet the One Greek Business Profiting From the Run on Banks

4 minute read

The last five years have not been kind to the nameless little shopping plaza off of Lekka Street in central Athens. One after another its shop windows have gone dark and its merchants have gone out of business, acting out in miniature the way the Greek economy has contracted under the weight of its debts. But way in the back of the dusty arcade, the cluttered shop of George Moschopoulos has never seen better days. Every corner of the place is packed with one of the few durable goods on which Greeks are still willing to splurge: safes and strongboxes with solid metal walls.

Over the past few years, several aspects of the Greek financial crisis have aligned to boost demand for these unusual appliances. For one thing, public faith in the Greek banking system has collapsed, prompting Greeks to withdraw more than one billion euros from their accounts on Friday alone. The Greek government’s desperate push to raise tax revenue has meanwhile made people question the wisdom of storing their money in safety deposit boxes, where the tax police could still seize it. And the fact that people all over Greece are stashing their savings at home has driven an epidemic of burglaries. Put all that together and a strongbox starts to seem like a good investment.

“Everything has its risks,” says Moschopoulos, who has been in the safe business for nearly 40 years, according to the licenses that hang on the wall of his shop. “If you stuff your money in the mattress, it’s a thousand percent certain you will get robbed.” The most secure option, he admits, is still a safety deposit box inside a bank vault. “But there’s always the chance that some law will get passed to investigate what’s inside all those boxes, and they could all be frozen.”

Nor is there much security for Greeks in keeping their money in a savings account. As of Monday, the Greek government imposed capital controls on the nation’s banks, limiting how much their clients can withdraw to 60 euros per day, which is hardly enough to fill up the tank of a mid-sized sedan. Long lines had formed at ATMs around Athens in anticipation of this measure, and those who managed to withdraw their savings were among the lucky ones.

Now all they have to do is keep that money safe from thieves. According to the latest figures from Eurostat, the E.U.’s main statistical agency, Greece saw the worst jump in domestic burglaries of any E.U. member in the years after the financial crisis hit. In 2012, the most recent year for which Eurostat has published data, Greek police recorded almost 88,000 cases of burglary, up 76% from fiver years earlier. Police in Poland, whose population is 3.5 times larger than that of Greece, recorded less than half as many burglaries that year.

Greek media have meanwhile reported a change in the burglars’ tactics. If before they would wait until a home was empty before breaking in to ransack the place, they now prefer to have at least one person at home during the robbery to show the intruders where the money is hidden, according to a reported published Monday in the left-wing Avgi newspaper, which cited sources in the Greek police. (The press service of the national police did not respond on Monday to TIME’s request to comment on the article’s claims.)

If the report is accurate, the thieves in Greece would seem to have found a way to crack the safes that homeowners are installing. But Moschopoulos has yet to see a drop-off in demand. In the last five years, he says, his sales have grown roughly five-fold compared to the years before the financial crisis. “The reactions of Greek people are not always logical,” he says. “They are not patient enough to wait. They panic and withdraw everything right away.” But after this week’s capital controls, it’s hard to blame them for that kind of panic. The hoarders of cash would seem to be the clever ones in Greece this week, especially if they invested in the roughly 250 euros it costs to install a safe in their bedroom wall.

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