Crime is likely to get worse for the rest of the month, as consumer spending rises and the amount of cash in circulation increases. Picture: Oupa Mokoena
Johannesburg – As most people prepare for a relaxing Easter weekend, a group of professionals is gearing up for one of its busiest and most profitable times of the year: perpetrators of cash crime.

In the past few weeks, the country has seen three cash-in-transit heists on consecutive days. A few weeks ago, a group of robbers carried out a daring heist at OR Tambo International Airport, making off with R200 million.

Crime is likely to get worse for the rest of the month, as consumer spending rises and the amount of cash in circulation increases, said Richard Phillips, joint chief executive of Cash Connect Management Solutions, a cash management and payment solutions firm.

While cash-in-transit robberies have been on the decline over the past decade, last year saw a rise in these incidents, which Phillips said could translate to another increase this year.

Cash crimes – which include armed robberies and business burglaries – are generally conducted by crime syndicates who work smoothly together in armed groups of six to 12 people.

Many in the security industry believe 90% of these crimes benefit – voluntarily or involuntarily – from insider help.

Security footage from recent attacks shows that criminals are often able to disable the alarm system and head directly to where the cash is held, suggesting prior knowledge of the target.

“These guys are organised criminals,” he said. “They're not drive-by-night guys, ad hoc break-and-entry type of criminals.”

Despite the brazenness of the recent heists – one of which involved a shootout in Joburg's CBD – the drop in cash-in-transit robberies is quite significant over the past decade, according to police data.

A total of 137 cash-in-transit robberies occurred between April 2015 and March 2016. Although this was a 15.1% increase over the previous year, the figure for 2006/07 was a staggering 467 incidents.

The current trend indicates another jump in these robberies for this year, Phillips said.

Cash-in-transit heists are particularly hard to police because they're meticulously planned, and they're relatively rare, said Gareth Newham, head of the Institute for Security Studies' governance, crime and justice division.

After a heist is committed, groups split up and so evade capture.

Given that the number of people who can successfully pull off these heists is relatively small, once police do apprehend criminals they can put a significant dent in the number of crimes committed.

“When you're able to identify a group who are involved in cash-in-transit heists and you manage to arrest them, prosecute them, keep them in prison or keep your eye on them, it does have an impact on reducing the overall number of such crimes a year.”

Although heists can have greater pay-offs than cash crimes in the retail sector, it's often easier to target businesses, Phillips said.

In the coming weeks retailers can expect a spike in cash robberies and burglaries, with criminals using brazen tactics to break into money caches.

“There's a certain degree of vulnerability within retail,” he said. “They're retailers, not security people, and there is an accumulation of money in the stores which can be attractive.”

Businesses can take steps to avoid these crimes by making sure cash is moved outside business hours.

In 2016, the use of plastic explosives increased by more than 400%, suggesting what Phillips called a “professionalisation in the criminal world when it comes to the usage of explosives”.

As a result, businesses need a “hardened and robust” device in which to store money, he said.

Even the knowledge that a business has a sturdy cash vault that is difficult to break into can be a deterrent to criminals.

“When bandits work out the amount of effort to get his hands on the cash is just a bridge too far, they will simply go down to an easier, softer target where they can get away with it without much resistance,” Phillips said.

The use of specialised police task teams – units of experienced detectives and people from intelligence who focus on addressing a particular type of crime – has been particularly effective in combating cash crimes.

But these specialised teams are not necessarily permanent, Newham said. It was not uncommon for resources to be allocated towards other crimes after the frequency of a particular crime was reduced, which could explain the recent spike in crimes.

Ultimately, Phillips believed the most effective way to combat cash crime was via a co-ordinated effort between the police and the cash industry.

The police minister's recent commitment to a specialised team for cash crime was an encouraging sign.

“It has to be a police-driven initiative,” he said.

“Fighting crime is their specialty."

The Star