PINELLAS COUNTY – Law enforcement agencies from throughout Central Florida are bracing for an influx of organized crime “travelers” that each year gravitate here to steal millions of dollars from their victims.
In some cases, police said, entire groups travel together and work as teams to cheat and steal from residents and businesses.
They are trained professional thieves who work in small, close-knit gangs that are growing more violent as younger members become involved in brutal drug cartels.
There are four main groups, according to authorities. The Romanian gypsies have been operating here since the 1920s. Irish gangs began appearing in the 1950s. Polish and South American thugs concentrate on construction thefts and other criminal acts.
Law enforcement officials predict that this year more criminal travelers than ever before will target Florida. Most have been operating longer in northeastern states due to warmer weather there. Many family members are based in Murphy, S.C., and already began gravitating here.
At least one family, police said, is headquartered in Pinellas Park. Besides illicit activities, the “family” has a stronghold in Pinellas County’s psychic and fortune telling trade.
The attitude of the travelers, once known as gypsies, is that they can do anything to separate money and property from their victims.
“That dates back to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ,” Officer Donna Saxer of the Pinellas Park police said. “The belief is that they actually made four nails for Christ, but withheld one of them.”
As a result, legend has it, the gypsies were rewarded by being allowed to take whatever they wanted from people.
Today’s travelers have caught the eye of all levels of law enforcement, including the Maryland-based National Association of Bunko Investigators.
For years the Yugoslavian “distraction thieves” preyed on small stores. They travel in teams of family members who each have a specific responsibility such as drivers, look-outs and even as shields to protect others.
Police say the thieves also distract homeowners and rob them of money, jewelry and other possessions. The booty is placed in envelopes and packages and mailed so the thieves are not caught with stolen goods.
Last February Clearwater police broke up vehicle repair scams. One suspect told detectives that he was a “traveler of Romanian descent.”
Numerous arrests have been made in recent years because of video surveillance cameras. Police also share information during regular inter-agency meetings.
“Travelers are masters of disguise,” Saxer said. “Some have been arrested with multiple drivers’ licenses in their possession.”
Most are familiar with police procedures. They are quickly bailed out by family members before officers have an opportunity to complete investigations that might link them to other crimes.
South American family groups generally enter the United States illegally and constantly change their identities. Irish travelers, police said, are into construction scams such as home repairs and lightning rod installations.
Florida is easy pickings because of tourism, the ease of obtaining official identifications, a lenient court system and the large elderly population. Travelers deal in a variety of illicit activities that include residential and commercial thefts, lotto scams, fortune telling and palm reading, pest control and home repairs.
Many “families” rent motel rooms and extended stay hotels during their brief visits to the area. Some even own mobile homes or entire trailer parks and sell stolen merchandise to pawnshops, at flea markets and in family-operated retail stores.
Police are warned not to give their business cards to travelers because they will use them to show they are friends of a particular officer.
“Sometimes they will call senior citizens and identify themselves as long lost family members who are now hospitalized,” Saxer said. “Then they will ask for money to pay for medical bills.”
Many drive newer trucks while promoting illicit home repairs. One van that was used in a driveway repair scam actually had a police D.A.R.E. emblem on the doors.
Family members canvass residential areas to offer discounted work. Some will even obtain necessary city permits and place advertisements in local newspapers.
Female family members often befriend elderly male victims in so-called “sweetheart scams” whereby bank accounts and even entire homes are cleaned out.
Saxer said some family members actually disfigure their fingertips with acid to disallow the taking of fingerprints.
Many travelers have records and warrants in multiple states.
“This is not a problem that is going away,” Saxer said. “It has been around for a long time and will continue for as long as people allow themselves to become victims.”