Nation

Street gangs migrating from drugs to white-collar crimes

Payofs lucrative, punishment lax for fraud, ID theft

New York Police Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce (right) and Police Commissioner William J. Bratton discussed gangs engaging in white-collar crime rings.
Associated Press/file 2014
New York Police Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce (right) and Police Commissioner William J. Bratton discussed gangs engaging in white-collar crime rings.

NEW YORK — The Van Dyke Money Gang in New York made off with more than $1.5 million this year — but it wasn’t in gunpoint robberies or drug running, it was a Western Union money order scheme.

In New Jersey, 111 Neighborhood Crips used a machine to make dozens of fake gift cards for supermarkets, pharmacies, and hardware stores. In South Florida, gangs steal identities to file false tax returns.

These aren’t members of an organized Mafia or a band of hackers. They’re street gangs netting millions in white-collar schemes such as identity theft and credit card fraud, giving up the old ways of making an illicit income in exchange for easier crimes with shorter sentences.

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‘‘Why would you spend time on the street slinging crack when you can get 10 years under federal minimums when in reality you can just bone up on how to make six figures and when you get caught you’re doing six months?’’ said Al Pasqual, director of fraud security at the consulting firm Javelin Strategy and Research.

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Law enforcement officials say they see increasingly more gangs relying on such crimes. This year, more than three dozen suspected crew members have been indicted in separate cases around the country.

Grand larcenies in New York City account for 40 percent of all crime last year — compared with 28 percent in 2001. About 5 percent of Americans nationwide have experienced some kind of identity theft, with Florida leading the country in complaints.

New York Police Commissioner William Bratton wrote in a commentary in the city’s Daily News last week that white-collar crime was being committed by gang members ‘‘to an astonishing degree.’’

Crews recruit bank account owners to help cash phony checks, they pay off crooked employees who skim credit card information using hand-held readers, and they buy identities online.

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Pasqual said that for some, it was a supplement to other crime. “They’re earning the money to grow the other side of their business, using white-collar crime to fund gun-running,’’ he said. “For a lot of them this becomes their day to day. They travel the country when they get really good at it.’’

A task force created by federal officials in Florida has charged more than 400 people with causing more than $140 million in losses — including more than 60 charged three weeks ago — and officials say increasingly those arrested are gang members.

It’s an organized crime — but not ‘‘Organized Crime,’’ said Bill Maddalena, assistant special agent in charge of the white-collar branch of the Miami FBI office. ‘‘They’re very well organized. They have to recruit people to help steal devices, cash the checks.’’

And because gang members are engaging more in fraud, there are fewer turf wars.

‘‘There’s still an element of violence,’’ Maddalena said. ‘‘There’s less head-to-head competition. They’re attacking the government.’’

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This violence can be more directly related to the crime, such as a postmaster killed over a key to open post office boxes in Florida. In a Manhattan case, authorities found a scrap of paper in the pocket of a gang shooting victim that had the identification of another person.

‘There’s often violence surrounding the crime, but not necessarily in committing the crime.’

David Szuchman, of the district attorney’s office in Manhattan 

‘‘There’s often violence surrounding the crime, but not necessarily in committing the crime,’’ said David Szuchman, chief of the investigation division at the district attorney’s office in Manhattan.

As officials crack down on one type of scam, criminals move on to another. Gang members learn the craft from each other — but many are also millennials, ‘‘raised in a computer age, and they know how to use it,’’ said Lieutenant Greg Besson of the NYPD’s financial crimes task force.

The nation’s largest police department has revamped how it responds to financial crimes after officials started noticing street crews with recoded credit cards. Now, the grand larceny division brings in detectives from the gang unit and other divisions to work together.