Japanese police are investigating a nationwide ATM heist after nearly 1.4 billion yen ($18.8 million) was illegally withdrawn from 1400 cash machines in the space of two hours.

Police suspect more than 100 members of an international crime syndicate were behind the meticulously planned robbery, which took place in the early hours of May 15, according to Kyodo News.

Cash was withdrawn almost simultaneously across Tokyo and 16 other prefectures using counterfeit credit cards containing account information stolen from the South African institution Standard Bank.

The suspects reportedly withdrew cash from ATMs inside 1400 Seven-11 convenience stores, with each transaction totalling 100,000 yen, the cash machine limit.

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Japanese police are believed to have started the painstaking process of checking security cameras in each of the stores in a bid to identify the culprits involved.

Interpol is also assisting with the investigation, helping Japanese police to co-ordinate with the South African authorities, sources told Kyodo News.

The raids are believed to have started early in the morning when banks were closed, buying suspects more time to leave the country before police investigated the crime according to the Yomiuri newspaper.

Standard Bank, which is one of South Africa's largest financial services groups, released a statement confirming that it had been the "victim of a sophisticated, co-ordinated fraud incident".

It added: "This involved the withdrawal of cash using a small number of fictitious cards at various ATMs in Japan."

The incident is the latest in a string of increasingly sophisticated ATM robberies involving fake credit cards across the globe.

One such incident reportedly involved a pair of heists totalling around £31 million, after cyber thieves disabled withdrawal limits on ATMs around the world.

There is little that customers can do to protect themselves in the event of such attacks.

Dr Steven Murdoch, a security researcher at University College London, said: "It looks like something has gone wrong at one or both banks and there's not really anything the customer can do to protect themselves."