"They have quite a system in place," said West Seneca police Lt. James Unger. “In fact, I would call them organized crime.”
What Unger is referring to are so called Felony Lane Gangs, which began operating in Florida a few years ago and have since expanded up the east coast and now are suspected of crimes in Western New York.
They are thieves, often times working in precise coordination, who commit car break-ins to steal financial and personal information later used to commit fraud.
Though Unger wished not to discuss the most recent suspected case of this activity in the town because it's under investigation, 2 On Your Side was contacted by the victim who told us her story.
A Typical Tale
On December 30 she paid a brief visit, just after nightfall, to the YMCA on Southwestern Boulevard.
She returned a short time later to find her car window smashed and her wallet, which she’d left in the car, missing.
Speaking generally, Unger said this is a typical location for the genesis of such a crime, and that the victim, being female, represents the most common target.
“Lots of times the victims are what might be referred to as the typical ‘soccer mom,' ” said Unger.
“These thieves target places where they know women may be less likely to bring their purse with them.”
As well, Unger says the thieves are known to work in groups, with one of them watching potential victims, and then summoning others to roll up and commit the burglary once victim is out of sight.
“Lots of time, women come to the gym in their workout gear and don’t plan to use the locker room inside. They put their purse underneath a jacket or under a seat where it still could be visible, and this is the opportunity these criminals are looking for.”
Police have noted a pattern whereby not only health clubs, but also schools, daycare centers, or other places where the victims only plan to dash inside for a moment or two -- and leave their purses behind -- have proved to be fertile grounds for such crimes of opportunity.
Parks, children’s sporting events, and even funerals have been known to attract the thieves.
Just the Beginning
According to the victim, she lost some cash during the burglary of her parked vehicle. However -- and perhaps more importantly for their ultimate purpose -- the thieves were also able to get her driver’s license and glean bank account information from the contents of her wallet.
With one’s picture ID in their hands, the thieves then embark on what has typically become phase two of the operation, which in many cases can prove more lucrative.
Often times, female associates of the gang will use wigs, glasses, or anything they can find to make themselves look like the victim before heading to their bank to present themselves as such, and attempt to withdraw money.
Most often, thieves use the outside lane for the drive up teller … the one where the teller would have the least clear view of the customer the thieves are pretending, and indeed have disguised themselves to be.
With the correct account information, and a likeness bearing that which is on the picture ID they offer, it’s often enough to complete the crime by a successful withdrawal of funds from the victim’s account.
The outside lane would also give them a greater ability to make a quick exit should suspicions be raised.
It’s why they call it, the felony lane.
“And that’s where they get the name for this particular group,” Unger said.
“She Looked Just Like You”
In the case of the most recent victim, she thought she’d simply fallen prey to a typical smash and grab.
It wasn’t until women posing as her showed at two different banks at branches in other parts of the state and withdrew money that she knew it was something else.
“One of the tellers at the bank told me, ‘We are sorry … she looked just like you,' ” the victim said.
“As soon as we hear something like that, and that they used the outside lane at the drive up teller, it's almost guaranteed that it's a part of this crime ring," said Unger.
A Familiar Crime
This isn’t the first time West Seneca police have dealt with such a case.
“We had a case back in April of 2017,” recalled Unger, describing the attempt by some would be thieves to cash a check at a West Seneca bank on an account which belonged to woman who had her purse stolen in Syracuse.
According to Unger, a teller who grew suspicious stalled them and alerted police, who then intercepted the perpetrators as they were attempting to exit the felony lane.
A chase ensued, which ended in a crash and three arrests.
“When we made the arrests and searched the vehicle, we found disguises, wigs, and clothing which they used to dress like the victim when they fraudulently tried take the money out of the account.”
Nor are they the only police agency to have encountered this.
“Right now we're sharing some information with police in Rochester and Syracuse. … It seems like these gang members are from the New York/New Jersey area, and they are using the Thruway as their sort of path across the state, where they then stop along the way in different places to commit these crimes," Unger said.
You Are Your Own Best Defense
According to police, these sorts of crimes are likely to continue as long as thieves find it easy to get away with.
“They are opportunists and if the opportunity is there they will take it," said Unger, advising that while police can- and sometimes do catch the perpetrators – the best defense may be in the actions of would be victims.
“You can help yourself primarily by not leaving valuables unattended in your car. That’s the simplest way,” he said.