Photo of a white van with the word, “cash” written on it in graffiti. Photo by Dustin Ground, Flickr CC

They say opportunity makes the thief, and cash provides opportunity for crime. Cash is untraceable, provides anonymity, constitutes a universal and efficient method of exchange, and, unlike credit cards, has durable value and cannot be ‘cancelled,’ which makes it the ideal target for street crime. Because of this, countries around the world have begun to promote the use of digital payment systems, such as debit or credit cards, to reduce opportunities for robbery. But how strong is the connection between cash use and crime? William Pridemore, Sean Roche and Meghan L. Rogers compared rates of ‘cashlessness’ across countries and found out societies that don’t use cash as much as others also have lower levels of street crime.

The research team used the Global Financial Inclusion Database to compare countries’ cashlessness by looking at the percentage of adults in a country that received a direct deposit or payment from the government into a bank account. Unlike commercial digital transactions, government-based deposits directly benefit poor people who are at a greater risk of street crime. These public payments also signal the effort of state-level policies to reduce cash among the poor. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime provided the data on robberies.

Despite the importance of other factors like poverty, education, and unemployment in crime rates, cashlessness is significantly associated with lower robbery rates. These findings suggest that the medium of our financial transactions contributes to the forms of typical criminal activity. As social and digital forms of monetary exchange evolve, a new generation of digital crimes have emerged as well, creating challenging questions for those concerned with crime and justice.