JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Investigators in St. Johns County say a purse theft ring is working together, watching women in parking lots across Northeast Florida and then breaking into cars to steal their identities.
The targets include women in World Golf Village, Anastasia Park, Julington Creek, RaceTrac Road, Girvin Road and Blanding Boulevard. Detectives say they think this same ring is even responsible for purse thefts as far away as Tallahassee.
Here's how it works: It's not your typical smash and grab, crime of opportunity. St. Johns County deputies say it's a well-organized group that only takes purses and specifically targets parking lots outside day care centers, fitness centers and schools. They usually strike in broad daylight. They use the driver's license in the purse to trick tellers into thinking the female suspects are the women in the driver's license photo.
"They pull up normally right beside the vehicle or in the back of the vehicle which blocks peoples' view. It takes five to 10 seconds for them just to get out, tap the window, it falls out, reach in, grab the purse and they're gone," Detective Kip Brantley said. "They use a window punch and they hit this area right here and it shatters the whole window," pointing to the bottom corner of the drivers' window.
IMAGES: Female bandits at work
Brantley says there are usually two cars. The one that commits the car burglary and then the one that takes the stolen purse to the bank.
One Orange Park victim of this ring is too frightened to give her real name since the crooks have not been caught. We'll call her "Jane." She had her purse stolen while it was parked outside the gym where she works out in Orange Park.
"When they see them get out of the vehicle without a purse, they assume that it is somewhere in the vehicle," says Detective Brantley.
"I walked out to the car, and just saw glass all over the place," said Jane. "You didn't even think they would have seen my purse with the tinted windows and having a black purse hidden underneath the seat."
Jane (on right in photo, with im is convinced they must have been watching her.
Detective Brantley has been tracking the purse theft ring for weeks. He says the thieves try to pick a woman who looks like one of the women working with the crooks.
"The person had the same color hair, kind of appeared, looked like me a bit," said Lynn, who also is a victim of this purse theft ring.
Jacksonville police say a woman withdrew $3,000 from Lynn's accounts. Her purse was stolen from under the seat of her car as it was parked outside Abess Park Elementary School in East Arlington last month.
"Within an hour that it happened, (they) went to two different places (banks), not just one, two different, and withdrew the money," Lynn explained.
Investigators say they trick the teller into thinking they are the woman in the driver's license from the stolen purse. It's why detectives call the far drive-through lane "felony lane." It's so far away; the teller can't get a close enough look to see if the driver's face matches the picture in the license. The female suspect tells the teller she does not have her account number and the teller writes the number on the withdrawal slip, making it easy to take money out of the women's bank accounts.
Channel 4 obtained police reports that show six women, all blondes, were targeted for their purses in the same way. In surveillance photos, in all but one instance, the female suspect withdrawing money has blonde hair. In all, $32,760 was stolen from their bank accounts.
"My account, at the lowest it went to, was negative $11,000," said Jane. "Your life is upside down when it's happening. You don't have access to your money."
Here is a side-by-side comparison to show theft victim, Lynn, on the right and the suspect in the bank's drive-thru lane on the left. Lynn was targeted in the parking lot of Abess Elementary School in Jacksonville.
"They were going to cancel my card and put a fraud alert on my account so no one could tap into that account," she said. "We put security passwords on my account. They put something saying no transactions through the drive-through."
The purse thieves had her driver's license and her bank cards, none of her checks were stolen. She thought cancelling the cards, putting the fraud alerts and the alert telling tellers not to conduct any transactions involving her account through the drive- through, would protect her money. But Jane says the tellers ignored those alerts. Jane says tellers allowed someone with her ID to withdraw $1,900, $1,920 and $600 from her accounts, from the drive-through at different banks.
"They would have had to go through the bank drive-through, say they didn't have the account number and show them my driver's license," said Jane. "The person never double-checked the picture. The bank teller then would fill out the deposit slip, put my account number and send it back to them all they would have to do is sign it. And those signatures never even matched mine."
Jane goes on to show us a copy of one of the checks that tellers cashed through the drive-through. She says, "none of the signatures on the deposit slip they signed matched. Looks like they signed it twice. I was told by the bank that the first time they didn't think the signature was mine." She goes on to say, "then the manager came thru looked at the signature, asked them to sign it again, and it's exactly the same and all she (manager) said was that signatures change and still handed over the money."
Even when Jane closed her account and opened a new one, she says tellers still gave out money from her accounts. She says two more checks for $1,900 and $1,800 were cashed at the drive-through, six days after she called the bank to put the fraud alerts on her accounts.
"How hard is it to ask for a password? You put all these security measures in place, thinking your money's safe," said Jane. "Out of seven locations, only one actually asked (for the password) and it scared the person off and they drove away." Jane says her bank told her that when a bank teller in the drive- through accesses a customer's account on their computer, there is a screen that pops up asking for the teller to type in the customer's password. Jane says her bank told her, that the teller can hit a button that bypasses that request.
It took Jane three weeks to finally be able to access her accounts. All of the money that was stolen from her was reimbursed to her by her bank.
Channel 4 did call Jane's bank to get some answers. The bank told us it is still researching Jane's account to get us some answers. Detective Brantley says he thinks bank tellers don't ask a lot of questions because they want to keep their customers happy and don't want to upset someone by questioning their deposits or withdrawals.
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