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History’s Four Biggest Heists

27th February 2023

Four of history’s biggest heists

As technology and security evolve, bigger heists that rose to fame years ago are becoming less and less common. Even so, true crime documentaries and podcasts have revived our interest in some of the biggest heists. This feature examines how much money and possessions were lost in some of these heists and where they occurred.

Robbery of the Agricultural Bank of China in 2007

Between March 16th and April 14th, 2007, China experienced its biggest bank robbery. Two vault managers employed by the Agricultural Bank in the Handan Branch carried out the heist and embezzled almost $6.7 million. Two security guards helped Ren Xiaofeng steal $26,000 in 2006, leading to the heist’s idea. After stealing money, Ren spent it on lottery tickets – hoping that he could win more than he had stolen, place the original money back, and no one would notice. The money was duly returned to him after he won.

Ren’s luck ran out when he tried this on a larger scale with the help of another vault manager, Ma Xiangjing. Having stolen US$4.3 million, it was a complete disaster. Despite stealing more money in desperation, they only won US$12,700. They attempted to escape by buying fake IDs with the bit of money they had left. Soon after, they were found, arrested, and charged with embezzlement just days after appearing on the Most Wanted list. Ren and Ma were executed and thrown in the Yellow Sea, while the security guard accomplices were jailed for five years. This was not the outcome they were hoping for.

2004 and 2009 Ireland Bank Heists

This heist from 2009 is frequently cited as an example of systematic failure. As one of Ireland’s largest bank robberies, this heist occurred on February 27th. Criminals kidnapped a bank employee as part of a ‘tiger kidnapping’, which involves capturing someone and then forcing that person to commit crimes, often robberies, on the criminal’s behalf. Kidnappers held Shane Travers’ girlfriend and two others hostage, forcing him to remove €7.6 million in cash. The perpetrators did not need to physically get around the security systems in banks, which are very high-level, including alarms, vaults, and underfloor safes.

In preparation for the central robbery, the criminals carried out a ‘test run’ involving the theft of $1 million in cash. The men impersonated security services, and employee Chris Ward was forced to steal by tying up bank supervisor Kevin McMullan. Ward went about his business as usual, telling security he was taking out the garbage – the employees locked up and drove home as usual after the theft was completed.

After removing any trace of themselves, the criminals dropped McMullan’s wife in a forest and fled. The case remains unsolved despite initial accusations that the IRA committed the crime. This heist forced the bank of Ireland to change the colours, logos, and serial numbers of their £10, £20, £50, and £100 notes. This was the only way to prevent stolen money from creeping back into society.

Robbery of Knightsbridge Safe Deposit Centre, 1987

Valerio Viccei was the mastermind behind the Knightsbridge heist, considered one of the largest robberies anywhere in the world. He was wanted for more than 50 armed robberies in Italy when he arrived in the UK in 1986. Viccei and his accomplice entered the Safe Deposit Centre to rent a safe deposit box.

Putting up signs marking the centre as closed, they drew handguns, smashed safes, and stole more than £60 million.

Following a shift change, the investigation and search were launched – Viccei had fled to Latin America, but many of his accomplices were arrested and convicted. Viccei, seemingly safe in Latin America, returned to the UK to collect his Ferrari.

2003 Central Bank of Iraq Robbery

The Central Bank of Iraq was the site of the largest bank robbery in history. This robbery differed from many others. The man behind it was Saddam Hussein, the man in charge of the country at the time. Hussein robbed the country’s bank of more money than he had ever seen using his son.

The perpetrators left with the money in trucks without any gunshots or violence after receiving a note from the dictator’s son asking them to return $US1 billion. Despite some claims that Hussein had absolute rule over the country, it was the largest heist in history. Was the money for use against the US Forces, or was he planning a last-minute escape before the invasion? Even though some money was recovered during the following war, quite a lot remains unaccounted for.


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