Hi-tech con gang cheats posh car drivers

Prosecutors are investigating a group of con artists who devised an elaborate scheme involving the use of complex communication equipment to extract money from the owners of expensive automobiles.

The gang’s approach, described by Vrevya Novostey newspaper, would look natural in a Hollywood crime flick like The Thomas Crown Affair or The Italian Job, although the con trick relied heavily on the Russian mentality.

The gang started their morning hunt in two cars: a luxury one with a well-schooled “chauffeur” and a respectable-looking “boss” and an inconspicuous support car loaded with communication equipment. When they saw an expensive automobile with a lone driver, the first group drove near and one of the criminals threw a piece of soap at the target vehicle.

After hearing the bump, the targeted driver would stop and be shown some minor damage, like a broken headlight or a scratched splash board – portrayed as the result of a collision, but actually pre-damaged by the criminals. An accomplice pretending to be a passer-by would scratch the victim’s car while he was distracted, so to avoid any doubt that the collision actually happened.

The potential conflict was then defused by the friendly “chauffeur”, who said it was just an accident and tried to “convince” his “boss” of it. The boss, who introduced himself as a high-ranking law enforcer, maintained an unconvinced face and took the victim’s mobile phone number “just in case it is needed”.

The number was secretly passed on to accomplices in the second car, who shadowed the conned driver and used special equipment to intercept his calls. A little later, the criminals made several calls to the victims, posing as managers of his insurance company and officers of traffic police to keep the developments plausible and mount up pressure.

The culmination of the scam came after the “boss” appeared in person and gave the bad news: his car actually belongs to the Federal Guard Service (FSO), the Russian agency providing personal security to top officials, including the president. It is armored and fitted with numerous security devices, and the minor collision damaged some of them – which means that repair will cost a lot of money. The con artist even called the “FSO garage”, and his fellow fraudster angrily complained on speaker phone that he has to deal with such an unimportant thing.

The victim, overwhelmed with the news, was usually eager to pay "unofficially" right on the spot and get over the conflict with the powerful federal agency. Some produced hundreds of thousands of dollars. If the victim said he did not have enough money to cover the damage, the criminals “showed compassion” and reluctantly agreed on a lesser sum. In one case, their appetites dropped to a ridiculous $100. Once the money changed hands, the “boss” wrote a claim waiver.

The gang is believed to include as many as 25 people, but police have managed to arrest only nine of them so far. Two have struck a plea bargain with investigators and will be witnesses at the trial. The gang’s leader has managed to avoid arrest. In the one year of their operations, the gang cheated at least 28 wealthy people and netted more than $1 million.

Their criminal career met with a sudden end when one of their victims turned out to be a real FSO officer. He paid the “ransom” money, but later inquired through his colleagues and found out that nobody in the garage knew about his case.