Economic Crimes Rise 300% in St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG -- The financial meltdown of 1998 has led to a sharp rise in economic crime in 1999, St. Petersburg police say.

More than 9,000 economic crimes have been reported through the first seven months of 1999 f twice as many as were reported for all of 1998, said Boris Busik, deputy head of the city's economic crime department.

Of the 9,000-plus reported crimes of embezzlement, counterfeiting, bank fraud, bootlegging and smuggling, more than 6,000 criminal cases have been initiated and passed on to city courts, Busik said at a news conference last month.

Busik singled out fraud as the crime most reported by victims. "We receive several calls a day from different businessmen who have been deceived ? unfortunately we cannot help them very often," he said. "Sometimes they lose a lot of money f tens of thousand of dollars."

Busik said that his department has been particularly successful in stemming the production and distribution of counterfeit foreign currencies. From January through July of this year, he said, police confiscated 353 counterfeit U.S. notes, 159 fake Finnish notes, six fake French bills and four fake Swedish bills.

Last September, city police arrested a Ukrainian citizen who tried to sell $10,500 worth of counterfeit U.S. notes locally. That arrest stopped a criminal syndicate from setting up a chain of outlets selling fake U.S. notes, Alexander Yegorov, head of the police's anti-counterfeiting squad, said.

Smuggling is another crime that is flourishing, Busik said. The rush to illegally import Finnish goods to avoid taxes became "very popular" after last August's devaluation. "Our colleagues from Finland ? were very surprised when they saw the amount of Finnish goods in our shops [at] much cheaper prices than in Finland," Busik said.

He said that the sheer number of trading companies in the city and in the Leningrad region outside of St. Petersburg made it virtually impossible to stem the tide of smuggling.

"There are 52,000 trading companies in St. Petersburg and 15,000 in the Leningrad region. Itis very hard to keep an eye on all of them," he said. In the first half of 1999, police registered 110 cases of smuggling, and confiscated chicken meat worth $700,000 and cigarettes worth $200,000.

The real estate market is still very attractive for criminals f nearly 400 crimes related to real estate have been reported so far this year. One high-profile case was the arrest in May of the general director of Kredo Petersburg real estate company, Oleg Zorin, who police say illegally acquired the titles to the apartments of more than 50 people. And in a case currently in court, leaders of the alleged Melnikov crime syndicate are being tried for stealing or illegally coercing the titles to apartments from 47 families or individuals.

Busik said his department is having less success in combating official bribe taking. "Currently, bribes are very wide spread," he said, adding that "in the past, when people wrote a lot of complaints, the work was more successful. Now people write a lot fewer complaints."

Busik said that he believes there are fewer complaints of officials taking or demanding bribes because "the existing situation is convenient for all; for those who give the bribes and for those who take them."

Busik said 30 high-ranking St. Petersburg customs officials have been caught taking bribes this year. But he declined to name them because it could compromise the ongoing investigation, he said.