(Updates with U.S. Secret Service spokesman’s comments in fifth paragraph.)
Feb. 17 (Bloomberg) -- Italian anti-mafia prosecutors said they seized a record $6 trillion of allegedly fake U.S. Treasury bonds, an amount that’s almost half of the U.S.’s public debt.
The bonds were found hidden in makeshift compartments of three safety deposit boxes in Zurich, the prosecutors from the southern city of Potenza said in an e-mailed statement. The Italian authorities arrested eight people in connection with the probe, dubbed “Operation Vulcanica,” the prosecutors said.
The U.S. embassy in Rome has examined the securities dated 1934, which had a nominal value of $1 billion apiece, they said in the statement. “Thanks to Italian authorities for the seizure of fictitious bonds for $6 trillion,” the embassy said in a message on Twitter.
The financial fraud uncovered by the Italian prosecutors in Potenza includes two checks issued through HSBC Holdings Plc in London for 205,000 pounds ($325,000), checks that weren’t backed by available funds, the prosecutors said. As part of the probe, fake bonds for $2 billion were also seized in Rome. The individuals involved were planning to buy plutonium from Nigerian sources, according to phone conversations monitored by the police.
The fraud posed “severe threats” to international financial stability, the prosecutors said in the statement. HSBC spokesman Patrick Humphris in London declined to comment when contacted by telephone. The U.S. Secret Service assisted the Italian authorities, spokesman Edwin Donovan said.
Creating fake Treasuries is a “common scam, especially in Italy,” he said. The tipoff was the “astronomical” face value of each bond, he said. Fake bonds in high denominations are more common in Europe, where people are less familiar with the face value of U.S. Treasury bonds than in the U.S., he said.
Zurich’s public prosecutor’s office provided material to their Italian counterparts in Potenza in 2011, according to Corinne Bouvard, a spokeswoman for the senior public prosecutor’s office of the canton of Zurich. The Swiss part of the investigation ended on July 22, she said.
The Italian investigation initially focused on a Sicilian who was living in Potenza and was “already known for money laundering and exporting currency abroad,” according to the statement from the Potenza prosecutor’s office.
Phony U.S. securities have been seized in Italy before and there were at least three cases in 2009. Italian police seized phony U.S. Treasury bonds with a face value of $116 billion in August of 2009 and $134 billion of similar securities in June of that year.
The U.S. Secret Service averages about 100 cases a year related to bonds and other fictitious instruments.
--With assistance from Jeff Bliss in Washington. Editors: Dan Liefgreen, Christopher Scinta
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