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Austrian court upholds acquittal for cashing in scrap euros

An Austrian court confirmed on Wednesday the acquittal of a man accused of fraud after he cashed in dozens of kilos of scrap euro coins imported from China.

Austrian court upholds acquittal for cashing in scrap euros
File picture of euro coins. Photo: AFP

The German national was arrested in the spring after using a change machine at a bank in the western city of Bregenz to convert huge quantities of damaged coins into banknotes.

Police discovered 117kg (258lb) of scrap one- and two-euro coins, with a total vale of 15,000 euros ($17,000), in his car. 

Having been charged with fraud and put in detention, the man explained that he regularly went to China to buy damaged coins retrieved from cars and washing machines sent there to be destroyed.

However, an appeal court in Innsbruck on Tuesday upheld a lower court's decision to acquit him, rejecting an appeal from prosecutors.

“My client was using a machine which is designed precisely to determine whether a coin is legal tender or not. So there can't be any fraud,” the man's lawyer Christoph Eberle, told AFP.

The man made frequent trips to China with up to 30,000 euros in cash in order to stock up on damaged euros but Eberle said that his client had always made the relevant declarations to customs authorities.

There is a thriving trade in damaged coins found in cars and washing machines sent to China to be scrapped, with the coins being resold in bulk for a fraction of their face value.

In 2012, a similar case came before Germany's Federal Court of Justice which found it was not illegal to exchange large quantities of such coins at the country's central bank, even if in that case they had been sold exported to be melted down for scrap.

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Ask the expert: What are the best UK banks for Brits in Austria?

An increasing number of British high street banks are closing the accounts of their customers who are living in the Austria - so what are the best options if you still need a UK account?

Ask the expert: What are the best UK banks for Brits in Austria?

The great majority of Brits who live in Austria have an Austrian bank account – but many also have accounts in the UK to receive income in the form of pensions, property rentals or work done in the UK, or to hold savings or pay bills in the UK.

Many UK pension providers will only pay into a UK account, while direct debits including mortgage payments can often only be taken from a UK account.

Having a UK account is therefore vital to many, so we asked Ryan Frost, private client adviser at Harrison Brook France, for some advice.

UK high street banks

Most Brits who move to Austria will have an account with a UK high street bank, and in many cases have had the same account for decades. But increasingly British high street banks are telling their customers living in the EU that they will no longer serve them.

READ ALSO: Reader question: Do I need to open a local bank account when moving to Austria?

The latest bank to do this is Barclays, which has announced that it will close all current and savings accounts of its customers who live in an EU or EEA country.

Most other high street banks will not allow you to open a new account without being resident in the UK.

For those who already have an account with a bank other than Barclays, the picture is mixed.

Some banks have already asked customers to close their accounts while others say they have no such plans at present – but account closures is a pattern that has been seen across the EU since Brexit, when British banks began to need separate banking licences for each EU country they operate in.

Ryan said: “Many people have had accounts with, for example, Barclays for 50 or 60 years so are very loyal to their account and used to it, and it’s a surprise to be suddenly told your account is being shut down.

“But since Brexit banks need extra licences to operate in EU countries and many of them are just deciding that it’s not worth it.”

So what are the alternatives?

Expat/international accounts

Many UK high street banks offer ‘expat accounts’ or ‘international accounts’ aimed at UK nationals who live outside the UK.

The major drawback is the cost; many accounts have a minimum deposit level – £20,000 – £40,000 is common – or stipulate a minimum annual income, so they may not be suitable for pensioners, people on a low income or people who just want to use their account for a few basic functions while keeping most of their income/assets in their Austrian account.

Most expat/international accounts also charge a monthly fee and some charge transfer fees on top of that. 

Ryan said: “These are often operated by the bank’s international arm eg HSBC International which is based in Jersey, and they’re really aimed at high-value, working, transient expat types, so they’re not really designed for UK pensioners who are living in France [or Austria], for instance.

“They will give you a UK account number that you can use for pensions, direct debits etc but they often charge high fees.”

Internet banks 

The last few years has seen a proliferation of new internet banks, which offer online-only services and operate across Europe.

The advantage of these is that you can sign up with an Austrian address and then carry out transactions in the UK or Austria using Pounds sterling or Euro.

Many people use internet bank accounts when they first move to Austria before they set up Austrian accounts, but they’re also increasingly being used to carry out UK transactions as they can offer a UK account number and Sort code – vital for certain types of transactions.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Why Austria’s rising property prices are causing alarm

The disadvantage for some people is their lack of a physical presence so in case of a question or a problem contact can only be made by phone or – more usually – via email or chatbot. Most internet banks also do not issue chequebooks or accept queues, which can be a problem for some customers.

Ryan said: “Digital banks are generally where we advise our clients to look, for example Wise (formerly the money-transfer service Transferwise, now set up as a bank), Revolut or Starling. 

These are new challengers on the banking scene and the advantage for Brits living in Austria is that you can “set up both a Pounds sterling and a Euro account and you will get both a GB sort code/IBAN – which will allow you to set up direct debits or receive a UK pension – and an EU account number and IBAN, usually through Belgium.

It means you can use the account for business in the UK, but also transfer money quickly and easily to/from Austria, Ryan says. In fact, for UK pensioners this might give them a better deal on exchange rates than receiving a pension into a UK account in pounds and then spending in Euros in Austria.

There’s a tendency to assume that internet-only banks are less secure, which isn’t necessarily the case, but if there are problems it can be harder to get redress.

Ryan said: “The thing you need to look for is whether the bank has a UK banking licence. Some of them only have an e-money licence – you can still use these accounts but having the UK banking licence means you have the same level of security and fraud prevention as any UK high street bank.”

Austrian banks

Most Brits living in Austria already have an Austrian account for daily life, but can you use this for all your financial affairs?

It depends on your situation, but some UK-based transactions require a UK account.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about opening a bank account in Austria

For example many UK pension providers will only pay into a UK account and if you have property in the UK you will probably need to set up direct debits for mortgage payments, utilities, council tax etc and most of these can only be done with a UK account.

Keeping a UK address

Many UK residents in Austria get around the problem by using a ‘care of’ address in the UK in order to retain their British bank account – usually either the address of a property that they own or the home of a relative.

Whether this is allowed or not is a bit of a grey area.

Ryan said: “This is a bit complicated because there’s a big difference between having UK residency and using a UK address such as the address of property you own or a family member’s address.”

“If you try to open a new account with a high street they will ask you whether you are a resident in the UK.

“For people with existing accounts it’s technically OK to use a UK address as a contact address, but as banks share more and more information sooner or later they will probably ask you whether you are a UK tax resident, at which point you will have to tell them that you are resident in the EU.”

Ryan Frost is a private client adviser at Harrison Brook France, which specialises in offering financial and pensions advice to expats in France.

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