Traveling Criminals: Take the Money and Run

By Mazzone, Gary L. | The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, July 1994 | Go to article overview

Traveling Criminals: Take the Money and Run


Mazzone, Gary L., The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin


Throughout the United States, both law enforcement and consumer protection agencies receive complaints daily of con games and other criminal scams. While many of these schemes are perpetrated by con artists who reside and ply their trades only in their local areas, an increasing number of scams are committed by highly mobile criminal groups who travel from area to area stealing from citizens and escaping the detection of law enforcement.

The two major groups of traveling criminals now operating in the United States--the Rom Gypsies and the Travelers--have long histories in North America. Today, these two separate, and often competing, groups employ similar tactics to steal from unsuspecting victims. By understanding these groups' methods, law enforcement agencies can better protect the citizens of their communities.

DIFFERENT GROUPS, SIMILAR TACTICS

The Travelers first came to the United States in large numbers during the English migration of the 1700s and then again during the Irish potato famine in the 1840s. Today, an estimated 6,000 to 10,000 Travelers reside in the United States.(1)

Gypsies arrived in North America during the great wave of European migration from 1880 through the early 1900s. Gypsologists estimate that approximately 1 million Rom Gypsies currently reside throughout North America.(2)

The two groups do not interact. Travelers resent being called Gypsies. Gypsies, on the other hand, refer to themselves as the Rom, speak an unwritten language known as Romaines, and do not appreciate being mistaken for Travelers.

Certainly, not all Travelers or Gypsies participate in illicit activity. However, those who do generally carry on criminal traditions that have evolved over many generations.

Home Improvement Scams

Typically, Travelers and Gypsies who do engage in crime are on the road plying their trades between 40 and 70 percent of the year. Members of both groups often represent themselves as self-employed home improvement contractors. They may pose as driveway sealers, basement and roof waterproofing specialists, or painters. As with many con artists, their preferred victims are the elderly.

In most cases, the group members do perform some type of work, though of extremely poor quality. They may spray roofs with a steam mist that they represent as sealant. The waterproofing agent used may be, in reality, thinned black paint. Their driveway sealant may be nothing more than drain oil.

The initial prices quoted may often appear quite reasonable, only to be grossly inflated when the job is finished. For example, a driveway may be quoted as requiring four pails of sealant at $20 a pail. When the job is completed, the contractor tells the victims that there must have been a misunderstanding--the job required 40 pails--and then applies pressure to secure payment.

Home Invasions

Additionally, both groups have been known to commit home invasions while they negotiate or perform residential improvement jobs, or as a predetermined sole objective. These invasions typically involve one or more group members searching for cash or jewelry, while another member of the group diverts the victim's attention. Alternately, group members may pose as public utility workers to gain entrance to a residence. Home invasions may also be performed openly in front of elderly victims.

SPECIALTIES

Rom Gypsies

While both Travelers and Rom Gypsies commit many similar crimes, each group also specializes in particular types of criminal schemes. Gypsies, for example, often commit a slight variation of the home invasion scam, using only female group members to perform the con and to gain entry.

Gypsies also specialize in fortune telling--often seeking out elderly victims or individuals who have recently undergone some emotionally distressing experience. These scams usually begin innocently with a quick palm reading for $5 to $20. …

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