FARGO — Smash-and-grab thefts from vehicles recently reported in Fargo and West Fargo are similar to crimes that plagued the area in the past, as well as to cases reported elsewhere around the nation.
Law enforcement agencies sometimes refer to such crimes as the work of the "Felony Lane Gang," but a spokeswoman for the Fargo Police Department says that phrase is oftentimes more a description of a certain type of crime than it is a reference to a specific group.
"Please keep in mind, the word 'gang' refers to a group of people conducting these crimes and isn’t synonymous to a gang like the Gangster Disciples," said Jessica Schindeldecker, public information officer for the Fargo Police Department.
The style of crime in question typically involves thieves targeting purses and other items left inside vehicles.
Also, such crimes have tended to happen outside certain businesses, such as day care centers and health clubs.
When these types of crimes have happened elsewhere around the country they have sometimes been the work of groups, and authorities have said it is not unusual for male members of a group to do the smashing and grabbing, while female members take credit cards, debit cards and checks to local banks to make withdrawals from drive-thru lanes.
Thieves are known to sometimes use disguises to make themselves look more like the IDs they steal and they tend to use bank lanes far from bank tellers, making Felony Lane Gang a convenient label for such activity.
Some smash-and-grab crimes around the U.S. could be the work of criminal organizations based in Florida and Texas, though just how large the organizations are, or how closely groups of thieves may work together, isn't known for certain, according to published reports.
In the past, smash-and-grab thieves in Fargo have targeted fitness centers, day cares, movie theaters, sporting events, cemeteries, and parks.
In late March, two incidents occurred at fitness facilities in Fargo. City police said at least three similar incidents occurred recently at fitness facilities in West Fargo.
The local cases remain under investigation.
Fargo police said victims of theft should notify their bank and cancel debit cards, credit cards, and checks. Victims are also advised to watch their credit reports for suspicious activity.
In 2018, Fargo police made several arrests involving crimes that used smash-and-grab tactics similar to what was being seen in cases nationwide.
Other incidents were reported in Fargo in 2019 and 2020.
Such crimes began showing up on a national scale around the early 2000s and losses across the country since then are estimated to be in the millions of dollars, according to published reports from communities across the U.S.
The reports paint a picture of organized groups that use information obtained from stolen purses to financially victimize people even after victims have canceled credit cards and debit cards.
When locked doesn't mean secure
Police stress that one way to avoid such problems is never leaving valuables in a vehicle.
Attempts to hide valuables are usually no impediment to experienced thieves.
Capt. Deric Swenson of the Moorhead Police Department said investigators sometimes see crimes of opportunity occur where people leave purses and other items in a locked vehicle and return to find someone has broken in and taken the valuables.
Fitness centers are among locations sometimes hit, as thieves know vehicles will be unattended for some time, Swenson said.
In some cases, people lock valuables in vehicles because they don't trust an indoor locker to protect their property, according to Swenson, who added that another reason thieves target vehicles nowadays could be the fact fewer vehicles have trunks than in the past.
Swenson stressed that break-ins and other crimes of opportunity can happen anywhere and not just in parking lots of businesses.
"Just because it (a vehicle) is locked doesn't mean the items inside are secure," he said.