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Chester County Press

Residents warned to play it safe in presence of new gang

05/31/2016 02:22PM ● By Richard Gaw
By Richard L. Gaw
Staff Writer

During a recent board of supervisors meeting at a local township, a man stood up in the back of the room and told the story of his wife, a teacher at a local school, whose vehicle had its windows smashed in. Her purse, which contained all of her most valuable personal information, had been stolen.
He had come to the township meeting searching for answers, assistance, or maybe just to articulate to township leaders the feeling of violation that he and his wife had been living with since the incident. He told the board that he had heard speculation from some colleagues that the robbery was done in the fashion that is traced to The Felony Lane Gang, an organization of cons and criminals whose thefts have gained notoriety along the East Coast.  Based in Florida, the gang has been in operation for the past several years, and during that time have been responsible for stealing -- and cashing in -- tens of millions of dollars, resulting from criminal activity.
Traveling in rented vehicles, gang members pinpoint areas generally frequented by women -- athletic gyms, sporting events, parks, shopping malls and day care centers. Specifically, they look for purses and wallets in the vehicles, which often contain identification such as driver licenses, checks, debit cards and other financial data.
Gang members then recruit females -- prostitutes and/or drug addicts -- to assume the identities of the theft victims in order to cash stolen checks belonging to other victims, and are often fitted with wigs so that they create appearances similar to the photographs of the victims. Rather than make transactions in the bank itself, fraudulent check cashers use the farthest lane from the bank building – generally referred to as “the felony lane.”
While the township's police chief, present at the meeting, told the man that while the robbery was still under investigation, it would be speculative to draw a direct line to the actions of The  Felony Lane Gang. The man's story, however, had already written the line in the sand, a line that has been drawn in stories just like his, throughout Southeastern Pennsylvania.
In the last year, the gang has been suspected of – and named – in numerous thefts in the region. On March 1, Tredyffrin Police responded to the Wendy's near the Valley Fair Mall, when a firefighter called police after seeing a person changing registration plates on two motor vehicles. Arriving police units attempted to speak with the occupants, who were driving a gray Dodge Journey SUV and a black Chevrolet Suburban SUV.
The driver and occupants of the Suburban avoided police orders and drove from the scene, striking an occupied, marked Tredyffrin Police cruiser. It then exited on to East Swedesford Road. The same black Suburban struck the same marked police cruiser a second time on Swedesford Road at West Valley Rd. The pursuit continued northbound of Route 202 then eastbound on Route 76. Heavy traffic forced all cars to stop just prior to the Belmont Ave exit where the black Suburban stopped as it struck an assisting marked Pennsylvania State Police cruiser.
Two occupants of the Suburban fled and were taken into custody after a foot pursuit, one of which ran across all lanes of Route 76, the Schuylkill Expressway, and over the shoulder into the Schuylkill River. Two other occupants of the same Suburban were taken into custody where it stopped. In the area where the Suburban was stopped, dozens of identity documents to include credit cards and driver’s licenses were seen being thrown over the chain link fence but recovered by police.
In total, law enforcement took seven suspects into custody, most of whom live in Florida.  Charges against the suspects include aggravated assault of a police officer; fleeing or eluding police; receiving stolen property; ID theft; access device theft and criminal conspiracy. The suspects being held in the county prison after failing to post $300,000 each.
Subsequent investigation roadside recovered more than 20 documents, including driver’s licenses, identification cards and stolen checks belonging to regional identity theft victims. Several victims that were contacted have confirmed that their belongings were stolen from child care centers and other locations that connect the underlying thefts with the gang.
Although it is too soon to confirm the connection between the usual raft of car thefts in the area and the Felony Lane Gang, these incidents are a clear reminder to local residents that Chester County has become a prime piece of real estate for their criminal operations.
"The difficult part of this is that because there's a lot of open cases, such as thefts from vehicles and thefts of ID and financial documents -- its hard to say how many are linked to this gang and how many are just through normal thefts," said Kennett Township Police Chief Lydell Nolt. "What I am concerned about is that we have these incidents that don't normally fit the method of operation of thefts from vehicles. These happen one at a time, randomly, with the thieves operating in and out, quickly.
"We can't connect anything to the gang until we are able to arrest anybody. The only thing we can do is connect the methods of their operation to these crimes. Does that link them? No, but it does give us an idea as to what's occurring."
Sergeant Keith Cowdright of the New Garden Township Police Department said that in the past two years, the department has attributed at least two cases of theft in the style of the Felony Lane Gang, to the gang itself. 
One of those crimes occurred at a day care center in the township, when a checkbook and other personal identification items were taken out of a purse that was parked near the day care center.
The checks from the checkbook were later cashed at a bank in Allegheny County, Cowdright said.
"They're stealing the checkbooks in one county, and cashing them two counties away," he said. "They steal items from cars in the early morning and early evening times. They're stealing checks and identification, and use both to write checks from one victim to the identification of another victim, and cash the checks on that account."
To date, the department nor any other area law agency has been able to arrest any suspects. As a testament to the growth of the crime organization, Cowdright said the perpetrators of these crimes are not from Florida, but working out of Delaware or New Jersey. 
"This is a crime of financial gain," Nolt said. "If we can cut off the financial gain, we can stop the criminal activity. Right now, they're not only able to find vehicles that are unlocked and accessible, they're able to find the banking institutions that will accept transactions."
Financial institutions have to step up and make the vetting process more difficult, Nolt said. He recommended that banks require all customers to provide fingerprint verification before making financial transactions.
"The biggest problem is that were finding is that victims have left purses and wallets and personal items that contain financial information in plain view, in locked or unlocked cars," Nolt said. "The most important thing they can do is contain these items in the trunk or take them along, and get them out of plain sight."
Both locally and nationally, efforts to curtail the Felony Lane Gang are well underway. Cowdright said that the New Garden Police Department is working with several other law enforcement agencies -- such as the Chester County Detectives and police units throughout Delaware to identify possible crimes connected to the gang.
"We are very fortunate that we have a good relationship with the departments in new castle county and the other agencies," he said. "We're constantly trying to ID these subjects. We're letting all of our networks know when an incident of this kind takes place, so that every agency can get their officers to know what's going on."
Nationally, the Felony Lane Gang Task Force's Facebook page has more than 6,000 followers, and serves as a hotline to report crimes, a forum to share ideas, and it posts surveillance camera shots of potential thieves.
In the event of a Felony Lane Gang-type theft, the task force recommends that victims immediately alert their bank to the identity theft and make sure the bank flags the account for warnings of any attempt to deposit or withdraw from the account; cancel all credit cards and keep all phone numbers and current card numbers available; file a police report in the jurisdiction where the cards were stolen and keep police up to date on fraudulent activity on the accounts; and call the three national credit reporting organizations -- Equifax, Experian and Trans Union -- and put a fraud alert on their name and Social Security number.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, e-mail [email protected] .