Smash 'n cash thefts thrive
JOE SEELIGSEBRING - Vehicle burglaries have been ongoing for years and often it's partially the fault of trusting or naïve drivers or passengers who tempt the dishonest among us by leaving valuables such as purses on the seat in plain view.
Published: October 6, 2012
Published: October 6, 2012
But there is a new breed of criminal — gangs prowling parking areas that have made it a business to look for opportunities by targeting certain places, businesses and situations and grabbing those valuables cards and checks.
The term "Felony Lane Gang" refers to an organized crime ring with ties to South Florida that is possibly expanding into Georgia and other neighboring states, said Highlands County sheriff's spokeswoman Nell Hays.
Members of the ring never gave themselves a name, but law enforcement officers did: "Felony Lane," according to a story on WorldNews.com.
"The name comes from the gang's tendency to use the drive-through lane farthest from the bank teller to cash stolen checks or make fraudulent withdrawals, said John Joyce, special agent in charge of the Tampa office of the U.S. Secret Service.
Hays recently reported there has been an increase in this type of activity in Highlands County.
"This gang's specialty is car burglaries, especially concentrating on places where females typically leave their purses in vehicles," she said. "Gyms, churches, parks and day cares are common places where ladies will leave their purse in the car ... "
Hays said three cases in Highlands County occurred on the same day and in the same parking lot. As it turned out, upon further research, there were five that all happened on the same day — Sept. 5.
Three were reported at 5:52 p.m. at Gold's Gym, and two were reported about an hour later at the Florida Hospital Fitness Center.
"Entry to the vehicles parked at the gyms was through the car windows, either by smashing out the window or by totally removing the window," said Hays. "The thieves break into the vehicle and take wallets and checkbooks, thus they have identification that matches up to the checks they have stolen."
The gang reportedly has used prostitutes and homeless people to wear disguises to make them look like the victims.
"They proceed to the victim's bank and … to cash checks on the victim's account," Hays said. "The 'Felony Lane' is the lane that is furthest from the bank window and usually most difficult for tellers to make positive identification of the person doing banking."
Trunks and hatches aren't really safe either, she said.
"Once they've gotten into the cab of the vehicle they can pop the trunk," Hays said. "Plus, if you do store a purse back there, look around to make sure no one is watching.
"We are in contact with other jurisdictions and, as a collective, we are seeing thefts of identities from one area and the people cashing checks in places quite distant from where the original theft occurred," said Hays.
"We are even seeing checks being cashed in Georgia, for example, with identities that were stolen in areas of Florida," she said. "It's a big operation and I think there is at least a statewide task force dedicated to this. …"
To her knowledge, Hays said, they haven't had any checks cashed at banks in Highlands County. She believed that Polk County may have made some arrests in this type of case.
Like a swarm of locusts, the crime has spread as quickly as the Internet could carry the idea.
Spreading north from Florida in small groups, criminals known collectively as the "Felony Lane" gang prey on unsuspecting women across much of the country, a story from the Kansas City Star stated in March.
"Their specialty is forgery and identity theft, and law enforcement officials blame them for more than $10 million in losses over the last decade," the story stated. "In the Kansas City area, group members have been linked to dozens of crimes over the last several years — including some in recent weeks."
Law enforcement also would like to encourage managers of health clubs, gyms and day cares to be watchful of any suspicious people in or near their parking areas.
"Please call us with any suspicious activity around vehicles parked at your businesses and let us send someone to check your area," said Hays. "We would like to drive this illegal activity out of Highlands County and we need your help to do it."
According to a story from the Hartford Courant, Michael Johnson, 32, of Miami Gardens, was sentenced in May to 22 years in prison after federal prosecutors said he spent three years as the ringleader of a gang of "Felony Lane" thieves, the report stated.
Federal investigators estimated that the gang stole as much as $6 million — $15,000 a day — during a phony check cashing spree that ran from 2007 to 2010, the report stated.