Posted on May 1st, 2013 No comments
Authorities in Central Florida suspect three Broward County men of being part of an infamous “felony lane gang,” one or more groups of South Floridians who travel far from home to commit car burglaries, bank fraud and identity thefts.
Ench Smith, 33, and Guercy Smith, 26, both of Pompano Beach, and Traver Paul, 19, of Fort Lauderdale, are among the latest suspects accused of such schemes across Florida and the rest of the country.
The trio was more than 220 miles north of Broward on Tuesday, when police in Casselberry arrested them each on charges of burglary, criminal mischief and petty theft. Patrons at an LA Fitness in Casselberry, northeast of Orlando, reported their vehicles were burglarized, and police said they caught the suspects as they drove away.
The men were in a rental car, and their actions were similar to those committed by other suspected felony lane gang members, Casselberry Police Capt. David Del Rosso said. Police said they are not sure if the men are members of an elaborate crime ring or merely a group of petty criminals who adopted the scheme for a quick and easy score.
“It could be something they learned to do in jail, or they are a spinoff of other groups,” Del Rosso said. “Bottom line is they were doing the same type of crimes associated with a felony lane gang.”
Even though “felony lane gang” suggests one group, it actually is more than one ring of thieves carrying out such crimes, officials said. While gang cells may not be working together, their schemes usually take on similar patterns.
In most cases, those arrested have South Florida addresses and travel in rental cars. They target cars parked at state parks, day care centers, gyms, supermarkets and cemeteries. Their loot usually includes wallets or purses containing credit and debit cards and checkbooks.
The thieves later drive to the victims’ banks to cash stolen checks, often wearing wigs and sunglasses for disguises. They often use the farthest drive-through teller lanes to avoid surveillance cameras. Thus the term “felony lane.”
In Broward, Ench Smith has primarily dealt with traffic offenses. His short prior criminal history excludes any arrests consistent with being part of a large-scale organized crime group, records show.
His alleged accomplices have a more serious criminal history, records show.
Since 2008, Guercy Smith has pleaded no-contest and been sentenced to probation on several charges, including aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and drug possession, state records show.
Paul was most recently arrested in Miami-Dade County on March 22 on charges of fleeing police and reckless driving. He is awaiting trial in that case. Since 2008, he has pleaded no-contest and been sentenced to probation on several offenses, including firing a gun into an occupied dwelling and battery.
Authorities say those involved in felony lane-type crimes have distinct roles, and the crimes often are aimed at stealing victims’ identities. Some act as organizers and recruit other members, some conduct robberies to obtain identification documents, and others go to banks to cash fraudulent checks.
In recent months, federal officials say they have made some progress in cracking down on felony lane suspects from South Florida.
In December, a grand jury in Pennsylvania returned a four-count indictment, charging 10 people with conspiracy to commit fraud, bank fraud, wire fraud and aggravated identity theft. With the exception of a Texas woman, all the alleged group members reportedly were from Broward.
In that case, federal officials said group members committed crimes in Pennsylvania from August to October 2012. During that time, they allegedly broke into numerous vehicles and stole the identities of more than 100 people.
The “smash and grabs” occurred at about 25 state parks and recreation centers in and around the Middle District of Pennsylvania.
Heidi Havens, a spokeswoman for federal prosecutors in Pennsylvania, said the cases are expected to go to trial next month.
Posted on September 27th, 2012 No comments
As identity theft has skyrocketed in the last five years, more South Floridians are being plunged into the aggravating and painfully slow process of proving they exist after thieves steal their identity.
From thieves installing ATM skimmer devices at Publix Supermarkets to those filing fraudulent tax returns in someone else’s name, identity theft has left many South Florida victims in financial limbo. College students can’t get financial aid. Some people can’t close on homes they were scheduled to buy. Others can’t get new credit cards. Thousands have had to wait more than a year for federal tax refunds they were counting on to pay bills.
Identity theft affects South Florida’s young and old — from babies’ newly issued Social Security numbers being filched to thieves stealing identities from the graves of the deceased.
Even law enforcement officers haven’t escaped. Davie Police Capt. Dale Engle, has been waiting seven months for his federal tax refund check, since a thief filed for one in his name — just five days before Engle tried to submit his own. “It’s a huge problem,” Engle said.
Such is the reality in South Florida, where the dramatic jump in reported incidents to the Federal Trade Commission — from 8,317 cases in 2007 to 17,668 in 2011 — has made us the identity theft capital of the nation. More identity thefts per capita occur here than in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago or any other large urban area of the country.
Last year saw the number of identity thefts explode, with claims jumping 76 percent in Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties. South Florida reports increased from 184 per 100,000 population in 2010 to 324 per 100,000 population in 2011, according to the FTC.
For Richard Zadanoff, 77, having his identity hijacked meant his plans to move from a home to a condo were upended. The Tamarac man discovered the problem earlier this year during tax season, but he couldn’t close on the condo because the bank found records of someone else’s claim to be him at a different address.
Zadanoff stood in line for hours at the Internal Revenue Service office in Plantation to report that his identity had been stolen — only to be turned away because so many others were ahead of him. He finally got an IRS office in Virginia to take his information by phone.
Victims of tax-related identity theft are required to file affidavits with the IRS and report the case to local police. Some departments have balked because they figure the federal government will investigate, said Cindy A. Liebes, the FTC’s Southeast regional director. But sometimes victims can’t get credit agencies to list the identity theft in their files unless there is a police report, she said.
The FTC also recommends that victims report the crime to the Social Security Administration.
Carol Flynn, of Davie, said the IRS didn’t tell her to report her tax-related identity theft to local police, the FTC, the SSA and the credit reporting agencies. She’s still waiting to hear about her refund, but said U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson’s staff directed her to a taxpayer advocate who is updating her about her case.
At times, state and local agencies also have inadvertently put personal information online.
Bruce Hogman, a senior computer systems consultant who lives in Fort Lauderdale, was upset when he learned that Broward County had published some of his personal information online.
“My Social Security number was on the web for five years before a neighbor told me,” he said.
Broward County promptly removed his number after he alerted them, Hogman said.
Still, he fears others may be exposed to identity theft because some of their personal information may remain online in public documents such as deeds.
Lyz DeMarco, of Hollywood, couldn’t believe it when the IRS rejected a tax return because a thief had claimed her identity first; she had already been a victim twice before.
Once, someone tried to buy surfboards in Texas with her stolen credit card number. “It was a crazy amount of surfboards,” she said. Another time someone tried to use her debit card at a sports bar. “They must have made a counterfeit one,” she said. “I had mine with me.”
DeMarco said she encountered hurdles when she tried to report the crime, with police telling her they didn’t take IRS cases. On a third try, police took a report. The IRS required her to submit an “identity theft affidavit” to prove who she was. She spent hours on the telephone with different IRS staffers before her theft claim was finally accepted.
Despite the ordeal, which lasted half a year, DeMarco considers herself lucky. She called the IRS on Wednesday, and after she was on hold for an hour, this time there was good news.
Her refund was being wired into her bank account — with $50 in interest.
“I was floored — I was absolutely floored,” DeMarco said.