A group of scammers has conned 12 banks out of at least $1,000 at a time by distracting tellers during cash exchanges, Suffolk County police said in offering a reward to find the thieves.
Under the scam, a person walks in with $3,000 or so in $50 or $100 bills and asks for a different denomination, police said, but after the teller hands over a stack of bills, the scammer gives a reason for wanting back the original bills.
“He’ll say ‘Oh I meant euros, and they’ll go ‘You have to call ahead for that. We can’t do that at the counter. That’s a special order,’ ” said Det. Robert Chase of the major case unit.
But as the scammer makes the request, he or she peels bills off the stack of bank money — their hands below the counter sometimes — and distracts the teller with conversation, movement back and forth in front of the teller or a call on a cellphone, he said.
“It’s almost like they’re magicians — their sleight of hand, their ability to distract,” Chase said. “It’s a confidence scheme.”
Investigators have released 12 images from bank surveillance cameras, and based on the footage, detectives believe one woman and at least five men are part of the group of scammers.
In all, the group may have stolen upward of $18,000 by striking Capital One 11 times and Citibank once between Feb. 16 and Monday, police said.
Chase said detectives didn’t realize there was an organized con game until early March, when Capital One branches got hit in Greenlawn, Smithtown and Southampton.
“That all happened on the same day, March 2, and all about the same time,” he said.
The thieves arrived just before the 6 p.m. closing, perhaps timed to take advantage of employees’ state of mind, the detective said. At that time, workers are done counting the money in their drawers, ready to leave and may not be “as thorough as they should be,” he said.
In all 12 cases, the tellers did not immediately count the money they got back, police said.
“Generally, the theft is not discovered until after the person has left the premise,” Chase said. Sometimes, the shortage is discovered the next day, he said.
Some bank officials now suspect they may have been conned as early as December and are reviewing shortages they may have labeled as errors or thefts by tellers, police said.
Suffolk police said they have spoken to Nassau County detectives and have warned banks of the scheme.
“All of a sudden, banks are going to realize, ‘We may have been a part of this and just didn’t know it,’ ” Chase said. “It seems the more we investigate this, the more incidents are being made known to us.”
Suffolk County Crime Stoppers offers a cash reward of up to $5,000 for information that leads to an arrest. Police ask anyone with information to call 800-220-8477.