Purse snatching used to be a simple crime of opportunity. But as women across the country are learning now it's often just the beginning of a much more serious crime -- identity theft -- and it's no longer just the local petty thief who's doing it. It's highly organized crime rings.
These thieves are targeting women as they go about their daily routines - stopping at day care centers, gyms, gas stations and supermarkets. Usually they snatch the purse out of the woman's car when she's stepped away for just an instant. It all happens very quickly, and a number of the crimes are caught on tape.
Like this Tape of Mara Giulianti, the Mayor of Hollywood, Florida. As she pumps gas at a local station, a thief pulls up, crouches down, and in seconds has opened her car door and made off with her purse. "I think the thing that shocked me the most was how incredibly quickly he could do it," says the Mayor.
This purse snatching in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Louisiana shows a truly masterful thief at work. As Kristen M. and her mother load groceries into the back of their car, a car swerves toward them, an arm reaches out, and Kristen's purse is snatched from the shopping cart before she has a chance to react. The thief never even stopped his car. Kristen posted her story on You Tube.
Police advise that women carry their purse with them when pumping gas. Wickie, a retiree living in Forida, had her purse snatched at the gas station around the corner from her home. Her door was locked but it only took the thief a moment to smash her window. "I heard this crash and broken glass. And I turned around and this fellow… had the strap of my purse, pulling it through the window of the car and then running to jump in a pickup truck … yelling arriba, arriba!" she explained.
Laura C., who was dropping her daughters off at day care, and Elyce G., who was watching her son's soccer game both learned the same unsettling lesson: the thieves are sitting in parking lots, looking for victims. Elyce hid her purse under a pile of jackets, but the thieves knew exactly where her $1500 Prada purse was. "That was the scariest thing to me. Someone had actually been watching me and watch me get out with my children and walking into the school. And I just felt very vulnerable," Laura said.
i-CAUGHT obtained a copy of a police interrogation, which provides an exclusive behind the scenes look inside this world of crime. One of the crooks, Jennifer New, explains thieves know where to target soccer moms as victims: at gyms, daycare centers all the places they stop during their busy days. "They like Starbucks. Women like to hurry and rush in and leave their purse in the car with the door, you know, open or whatever."
Victims soon learn that the purse robbery is only the beginning. The thieves are after a bigger prize than the valuables inside a purse. Next they steal the victim's identity. Jennifer M. had her purse stolen from school while she was teaching kindergarten. Suddenly her mailbox was full of strange bills and other things. "They received traffic tickets in my name, they opened bank accounts in my name all over South Florida. They went to, um, different stores and they purchased things with checks that had my name on it and address… They went and committed crimes in my name."
Although Jennifer and all the victims we spoke to alerted their banks, the thieves were still able to loot their accounts. How did it happen? According to police, the thieves have a sophisticated knowledge of banking and credit systems and methodically exploit all the loopholes.
Often the thieves wouldn't even try to take money directly out of a victim's account. Instead, they wrote out a large check to that victim using a check stolen from a second victim. Wickie, Elyce and Jennifer all had checks made out to them from other victims -- women who also had their purses snatched. The checks would be cashed by women pretending to be Wickie, Elyce and Jennifer, and because the money wasn't coming out of their accounts, the bank tellers would ignore the alerts. But when the checks ultimately bounced, then the banks would withdraw the funds from their accounts. The thieves, or course, had the cash.
"I had to go through a battle with the bank, a battle, to get them to recognize the fact that it was their bank error, and I had absolutely nothing to do with it. And then I had to go through further battles with them to get the money reimbursed into my accounts," said Wickie.
Even when women changed their bank account numbers, the thieves often got access to the new accounts. They would simply call the bank and, knowing everything about the victim, get access to her new account. That's why police advise identity theft victims to change banks.
When Florida authorities noticed an alarming rise in purse thefts they suspected something sinister at play beyond petty theft, so they formed a joint local, state and federal task-force led by the Secret Service. To date, the task-force has busted five different rings of thieves in Florida. In just the federal cases, they have put 43 people behind bars. Authorities have proof that these rings committed $7.5 million in fraud, but believe that the true amount could be three to four times higher.
Several more rings are under investigation.
Police discovered that many of the crooks had been arrested dozens of times in various communities, only to receive light state charges for petty crimes. The task-force put together federal charges and the US Attorney for the Southern District of Florida successfully prosecuted the crime rings, achieving sentences of up to twelve years.
Coral Springs Police Department Captain Jim Milford says organized crime rings operate "coast to coast" in practically every state. He says some jurisdictions get hit with a sudden increase in purse thefts but are unaware that these sophisticated criminal enterprises are behind it. Indeed, i-Caught found similar cases around the country: One ring of thieves operated cons from Massachusetts all the way down to Maryland. One ring of thieves was caught on bank surveillance tapes from Massachusetts all the way down to Maryland disguised as different victims.
In Hawaii, police say Kellyn Cabral specialized in churches. They say she got caught stealing a purse that a woman left in the pew while she went to receive communion. Cabral has pleaded not guilty.
Perhaps Carole Crane sank the lowest: she stole purses at the Washington State School for the Blind, using an accomplice who pretended to be vision-impaired.
Coral Springs' Captain Milford says this crime amounts to bank robbery without a gun. He says he is frustrated that banks don't train their managers and tellers better to recognize fraud, something he says could cut down on the heartache for victims. In the end the banks and creditors usually cover the cost of the fraud, but the burden is on the victims time and again to prove they weren't responsible.
Once these sophisticated criminals steal your identity there's no telling what troubles you'll be facing. So be on guard. Police recommend that you minimize what you carry in your purse – only bring essential credit cards and don't carry a check book if you don't need it. Do not carry identification like a social security card or passport unless there's a reason. Try not to leave your purse in your car: the thieves are watching, and if they see you get out without a purse, they know they can probably break into your car and find it. If you're stopping to pump gas, carry your purse – don't leave it on the passenger seat in plain sight. Remember a locked car door is little disincentive to a thief.
The evidence is on tape – the thieves are out there and they're looking for someone to drop their guard.