(Note: As is the case in dealing with groups of people, I do not wish to imply that all people of the Gypsy culture are involved in crime. In fact, there are many Gypsies providing positive contributions to our world. Also, my personal thanks to John Nicholas, Jr. who made this article possible through his mentoring, input, professionalism and friendship.)
We have all heard or know about organized crime. But did you know there is an organized crime family specializing in fraud that has successfully operated throughout the world for almost 2,000 years? Their success nets them millions, tax-free, every year. Less than 5% of their victims complain and when they do, are often met with laughter, mis-reporting or ignorance by law enforcement. Hence, prosecution is rare.
"Nobody cares! Not the bosses, not the prosecutors or even many judges. They don't want to hear about it ... until it happens to them, their families or a big-wig,"
-A Gypsy cop in Florida
The crime family? Gypsies.
Who Are they?
The name is steeped in history. Gypsy is short for "Egipcien" or Egyptian; originally thought to have come from Egypt. A Gypsy is a member of a wandering people who migrated to Europe from India in the 15th century.
We have absolutely no idea how many Gypsies are in the United States. Some estimates say there are 10 million worldwide. There are Gypsies in virtually every large town in America. Large populations are known in New York, Chicago, Milwaukee, Texas, Kansas City, Denver, Washington, Las Vegas and Florida (Orlando, Palm Beach, Broward and Dade Counties). There are also significant populations in Toronto, Canada and European countries.
True Gypsies are known as "Rom." However, "Gypsy cops" (the rare breed that they are) know there are Yugoslavian, Romanian, Russian, Polish and Hungarian Gypsies. Each group has its criminal specialty. There is also a group collectively known as the "Travelers." The Travelers are Irish, English or Scottish, not resembling the true Rom, but often included erroneously as Gypsy. Gypsies speak a language known as Romany. This is a spoken language derived from various Indo-European languages. There is no written Romany.
What's In A Name?
Names mean nothing to Gypsies and this often causes confusion for investigators. The Rom (and Travelers) tend to name children after family members. It's a way to honor both the living and the dead. For example, Danny and John Anderson are the sons of William Anderson. Danny marries and has three sons named Danny, John and William. The use of "Jr.," "Sr.," "I," "II," etc., is not generally common. Confusing? You bet.
Gypsies are experts at false identification. Along with the name use, this becomes extremely confusing to the ordinary cop on the street as well as investigators unfamiliar with Gypsy crime. To add to the identification confusion, January 1st is commonly used as the date of birth.
Let's take a look at how a family name really isn't. Marks is a common Gypsy name. The Florida Marks are related to the Kansas City Marks. The Colorado Marks are related to the Las Vegas Marks. Both are into fortune-telling scams and allegedly may be into threats of violence, guns, drugs and arson to maintain control of their territory. Yet, no relationship is known between the two families. Confusion often reigns supreme when identity questions arise.
The Rom Gypsy culture is fascinating, but also explains why the investigator has great difficulty in solving Gypsy crimes. Gypsies often lack any formal education. Most do not read or write, mainly because the children rarely attend school. Gypsies also shun organized society and the "gaje" (non-Gypsy). It's a tight-knit world and they keep it so.
Their world revolves around one thing - the family business: The "con."
A Gypsy child is raised being told the tale of the young Gypsy boy who saved the life of Jesus. The tale (with some variation) tells of four nails made to be used in the crucifixion: one each for the hands of Jesus, one for his feet and the fourth, a nail of gold, for his heart. Late at night the Gypsy boy stole the golden nail, so when the crucifixion took place the next day, only three nails remained. God appears to the young Gypsy boy telling the child his act of thievery saved Jesus from having the nail plunged through his heart. In payment for the boy's deed, God allowed the Gypsies the right to steal with no moral consequences ... forever and ever.
Gypsies choose a lifestyle of thievery, one that is as natural to them as eating and sleeping. This organized crime family, masters of fraud and false identification, does not associate with normal society and speaks a language rarely mastered outside the culture. Seldom caught, rarely prosecuted and almost never jailed, Gypsies even have their own court, known as a "kris" where all grievances (marriage, territory, debts, etc.) are resolved. They look upon the rest of society simply as their "prey."
The Cost of the Scams
The Gypsy crime family population in the United States is directly responsible for an estimated $15 billion dollars in varying forms of thievery annually. Gypsy hunter, Detective Donna Fitzgerald of the North Palm Beach, Florida Police Department says, "Most Gypsy crimes are directed at people who are the most vulnerable. People in times of emotional pain are often easy prey. Our elderly are their largest targets because they still trust people. The victims are our biggest concern."
Let's look at one "family" and their operations to get an idea of the revenue generated. Eighteen members of the Jim Miller family in Phoenix, Arizona, were recently indicted on 23 counts of fraud and conspiracy. The Millers allegedly bilked 12 insurance companies of more than $1 million dollars in claims for staged or fabricated events over six years and submitted 145 claims, primarily in Arizona, California and Nevada. However, they also operated in Colorado, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas, Utah and Washington. Claim settlements ran from $1,200 for being run off the road by the infamous "ghost" driver/car to $189,541 for home vandalism.
As we look at the more popular Gypsy scams, from fortune-telling, home repair and distraction thefts to home invasions and insurance fraud, remember, it is the "style" and not the "con" itself that identifies the crime as Gypsy. Gypsies rarely work alone and are always in pairs or more and always use family.
This is the most recognizable of all Gypsy crimes. Not all fortunetellers commit crimes and not everyone who enters a Gypsy fortunetelling establishment will become a victim. But everyone who does enter is a potential victim. Fortunetelling establishments are found in every sizable city in the United States. Most who enter will pay their ten or fifteen dollars and leave. Some will keep coming back until their life savings are gone. The victims are often those who are at a "last resort" stage of life and are often suffering from a lost love, death of a family member or illness.
Embarrassment leads to rare reporting and, if reported, the fortuneteller is gone. If the victim is lucky, because of investigative pressure, he/she may get all or some of their money back.
The home repair cons are rarely reported crimes and often ignored by the law enforcement community. The "driveway coating/sealing" scam where the loss is $50 to $100 is common. It looks good until the first rain. House painting and roof repair work are the same way. The homeowner is approached by several men in a pick-up truck (sometimes accompanied by children) who have "leftover" materials from another job and they say they will do the repairs on the victim's home for a stated dollar value to make extra money.
This can also be an opening for a burglary (home invasion). Who would refuse a child a drink of water on a hot day or the use of the bathroom? Guess who does the theft that's not discovered until hours or days later? Who's going to complain about losing $50 on a driveway-coating job that washed away? Yet, there was the 84-year-old widow who lost $367,000 over 22 months for home repairs. They are just prey.
What's $50? Multiply that by 10, 15 or 20 victims a day with two, three or four teams in a family working different areas of town.
We're not talking about the armed take-over, so common among many gangs. This is better known as a residential burglary and methods vary. This is usually done by the Polish Gypsies; usually committed in the daytime and while the homeowners are present. Entrance may be through a back door or window or by distraction at the front door. Commonly, there will be two women (with or without children) walking in an affluent neighborhood and speaking a foreign language. A male driver will be close by, usually in a rental car, to aid in a quick escape.
A few years ago, in McLain, Virginia, Alexander Haig's wife was gardening in front of their home. At the same time the residence was entered from the rear and $654,000 worth of jewelry was taken. Gypsies.
This type of Gypsy crime is easy to detect since only jewelry, silver, gold or cash is taken and nothing has been disturbed.
Better known as a store-diversion robbery, suspects will be European or Yugoslavian Gypsies but described by victims as "foreign-speaking" or "Latin/Hispanic." The crime is not planned in advance but more of a "mood" thing. The key is to create a diversion of some sort by five, eight or even 12 males and/or females. After calm is restored, the store usually discovers all of its cash has mysteriously disappeared. Violence is never used but total confusion and pandemonium reign during the theft.
This can be very rewarding. How about $42,000 taken from a supermarket and a three-month crime spree by four Gypsy women resulting in $500,000 in cash?
This is the trend of the future and a mountain of money is being made in fraudulent insurance claims. "Slip and Falls" and staged auto crashes are the most common. These are committed with little detection because the settlements are always made quickly and for cash. The amounts are never outrageous and are usually the "Just cover my medical bills" kind of a thing. The businesses involved are usually eager not to have an insurance claim on their record, so out comes the cash.
A quick $1,000 to $2,500 cash settlement is not bad for a few minutes of work a couple of times a week.
"The cops don't care and what's best, they don't know anything about us. Hotel security has no idea what's going on. Gypsies are running their scams every day and no one is the wiser." -Las Vegas Gypsy
In 1992, Disney Corporation in Orlando, Florida, was settling for $1.4 million in a well-publicized case. There were allegations of a young lady being beaten and raped in her Disney hotel room when a male, dressed as Dracula on Halloween, broke into her room. The plot fell apart literally hours before the check was signed, when the woman's sister told the police it was all a con. The entire scam was planned from start to finish. The brother was the "intruder" who did, in fact, brutally beat his sister. "We had to make it look real," he told police. The woman's sister snitched because she discovered that the $1.4 million check was to be split three ways and not all hers!
This, if successful, would have been the biggest scam ever known to have been pulled off by Gypsies. Within the Gypsies' community, there would have been an inherent honor, one a gaje could ever understand, in accomplishing such a con.
Even after the national publicity gained from this episode, Las Vegas, Nevada hotels and casinos are being scammed daily by Gypsies. Just as when the Mob ran Vegas, it is also true with the Gypsies that there are no bosses and the territory is wide open. All problems are taken to Los Angeles for a "kris." The Vegas Gypsies have ties to Colorado, California and Florida. These ties to other states present unique problems since both Colorado and Florida experience problems in the Gypsy community and turf wars, arson, guns and drugs are becoming more prevalent. Gypsies are coming to Vegas along with the great population growth. A Mecca for cons exists!
Vegas has opened up a whole new financial world for the Gypsy con. The hotels are experiencing more "slip and falls", missing items from cars parked in valet or damage to cars, "accidents," missing property and other scams. It's easier to pay off (even up to a $1.4 million settlement) than submit to your insurance company or go to court.
Also, what started in San Francisco has now arrived in Vegas as a big moneymaker. Called the "sugar-daddy sweetheart" deal, it's usually spread over a period of several months. A young, attractive Gypsy girl (and her family) will target an elderly wealthy male and provide companionship (sex is not normally involved) which will eventually end up costing the male everything. Preying on a senior citizen's loneliness often nets big bucks.
According to Gypsy sources, Las Vegas is literally being raped daily and doesn't even know it yet. This is not surprising since Gypsies and the Travelers are notorious "high rollers." While gambling for fun, they often figure they may as well work a little and make even more money.
Unfortunately, this ignorance exists in a lot of other places, but there is hope. Awareness is slowly replacing oblivion in many areas. Gypsy crime is dependent upon the ignorance of the police and public alike. Mobility, disguises, false identification, lack of communication, reporting and prosecution are counted on by the Gypsies. So, the key is identification, from photographs and fingerprints to the details of the crimes.
How to fight the problem
The South Florida Gypsy Crimes Task Force has made a dent in Gypsy crime and gained national attention. The task Force is multi-jurisdictional and composed of federal, state, county and city law enforcement and prosecutors. Gypsies are photographed, businesses visited, licenses verified, fire codes, ordinances, etc., all used for compliance. It's difficult to pull a successful scam when you are well-known to the cops.
New York, Illinois and Wisconsin are other pro-active areas. Professionals Against Confidence Crime (PACC) is an organization active in providing monthly intelligence bulletins, annual training seminars and speakers about Gypsy crime. Contact Lt. Dennis Marlock at 414-935-7325 at the Milwaukeee Police Department for more information on PACC.
The National Association of Bunco Investigators (NABI) (Jon Grow, 410-752-8150) is another good source of information. The John Cooke Financial/Insurance Fraud Report (Leslie Kim, CFE, Managing Editor, 714-289-7701) is also an excellent source of information.
The New Gypsy
As in every other culture, the times are changing, even with the Gypsies. The young bloods have discovered drugs (cocaine is preferred) and guns. Violence was almost unheard of in the life but now there are more reports and verifiable instances of arson and guns being involved. The old hats seem to be slowly losing control in these areas of modern-day pleasures and vices.
Progress has brought the Gypsy crime families into the area of credit card fraud and slowly into computers. Additionally, the use of grocery store tabloid ads allows long-distance scams for "get rich quick" schemes and more.
Awareness, knowledge, training and a constant pro-active stance by law enforcement, insurance, car rental and financial institution investigators, the business community and senior citizen groups have become the essential keys to prevention. The scams will continue because there is always the presence of greed and the "something for nothing" attitude in people. If it's been said once it's been said a million times: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. But too many people still believe otherwise and Gypsies know it.
As the young child is told in the story about Jesus, there is no sin in stealing if you are a Gypsy.
The following books are highly recommended reading:
License to Steal
Dennis Marlock & John Dowling
(A definitive work on Gypsies)
Scam! Inside American Con Artist Clans
(An excellent inside view of the Travelers, including the inside workings of the Disney World scam.)
E.G. Hall is a retired police detective and is a frequent consultant and guest speaker on fraud/Gypsy crime and investigation of other specialized crimes. He can be reached at 775-751-0255 or email: [email protected]