'bonanza' | 

Cash-in on government energy payments risks ‘surge in robberies’

Around half a million households in Northern Ireland will have the option to exchange £600 energy vouchers for cash at their Post Office when the delayed scheme starts in mid-January

Roisin GormanSunday World

A cash-in on government energy payments risks a surge in robberies, security sources have warned.

Around half a million households in Northern Ireland will have the option to exchange £600 energy vouchers for cash at their Post Office when the delayed scheme starts in mid-January.

Security sources have warned if even a fraction of the £300 million is cashed in by the 500,000 customers who use pre-payment meters or pay quarterly it could present a bonanza for criminals.

“No one uses cash anymore so the opportunities to steal it are dwindling,” says the expert.

“Especially since Covid so many businesses just don’t take cash payments anymore and everything is paid by card.

“With widespread bank closures the Post Office is the last bastion of cash, and this will be the biggest influx of notes in years.”

Around 500 Post Office branches will take part in the scheme, which is designed to help with fuel payments, although recipients can spend the money however they choose.

Consumers who pay by direct debit will have the money from their energy suppliers paid directly into their bank accounts but customers with pre-paid meters will receive vouchers by mail which can be lodged into a bank or credit union account or redeemed at the Post Office.

And as desperate families take advantage of the scheme which they were expecting to start in November 2022 the Post Office network will be under pressure to make sure they have the cash available for customers who want it.

“There hasn’t been this much potential for cash on the roads for years. Everyone uses cards so the demand for notes has steadily decreased and the opportunities to steal notes has also decreased,” says the expert.

“The money due to just those 500,000 customers is £300 million. With a network of 500 Post Offices that could be up to £600,000 a branch needs to have available.

“Even if only a small number of those people decide to get their money from a Post Office that’s still a massive number of notes which the network has to have on hand.

“When you look at some of the means used to rob ATMs, with criminals using explosives and diggers, it shows just how keen these gangs are to get their hands on notes, and suddenly across Northern Ireland there will be a huge spike in demand.

“This will be like Christmas for criminals.”

There have also been warnings that crooks will prey on individuals who exchange their £600 vouchers for notes, after reports in December that illegal money lenders, linked to paramilitary gangs were targeting food bank users.

One victim was cold-called and offered a £500 loan after being spotted at a food bank. He was left with a spiralling debt four weeks later of £1,300.

“These people will not care if they’re going after the most vulnerable in society, who are the most likely to use cash.

“If they’ve got someone who’s already in debt to them the £600 will go directly to a criminal’s pocket.

“Suddenly there will be a huge injection of money into the economy, and especially in working class areas where people are more likely to rely on notes it could be open season.

“The safest thing is to keep the money in a bank account or credit union although that’s not a guarantee you won’t get a knock on the door. But that’s not an option for everyone and they are the people who will be most at risk,” says the expert.

roisin.gorman@sundayworld.com


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