May 10, 2011 -- If you're at the mall in Sterling Heights, Mich., don't assume that sweet, old lady in a hat just returned from the royal wedding. She might be there to rob you.
Police in the tony Detroit suburb say an all-female criminal ring, made up of middle-aged and elderly women, are running a sophisticated con in which they allegedly pick the pockets of unsuspecting shoppers and use the stolen credit cards elsewhere.
"It's pretty unusual," said Lt. Luke Riley, spokesman for the Sterling Heights Police Department. "It's a diverse group, some black and some white."
Nicknamed the "Mad Hatters," the ring is made up of at least six women who frequently wear hats to disguise their identities and have allegedly swiped more than $500,000 in the past year and half, authorities say.
One bank alone estimated it had lost at least $200,000 at the hands of the hatters.
Some members of the group work as pickpockets, allegedly stealing credit cards and cash, usually from women at local shops. Other members commit the fraud, allegedly using the stolen cards to make purchases mostly in Macomb County but in the four surrounding counties as well.
"We know they're an organized group because when we looked at the incidents, the person suspected of stealing a wallet wasn't the person committing the fraud," Riley said. "We'd get a report of a white female in the area suspected of theft and then a black female would commit the credit card fraud.
"The common denominator between the suspects is that they all are wearing hats at the time of the theft and-or fraud, which has caused the group to be dubbed the 'Mad Hatters' by the financial institutions," the Sterling Heights Police Department said in a statement.
The hats run the gambit from floppy beach hats to a variety of berets colored black, white and blue.
In one incident in February, a suspect in her 70s allegedly stole $140 in cash from an envelope in a victim's purse, the victim told the Macomb Daily.
Cops have not identified any of the six women caught on surveillance video, who are believed to be members of the ring.
Since images of the women began circulating Monday, however, authorities have received "several leads," Riley said.
"We've gotten some good leads both on the suspects and from additional businesses who believe they were also victims," he said.
"We'll catch them."