The basics: Seven people from Fort Lauderdale were arrested in Westlake. A cop noticed drug paraphernalia in a rental car in a motel parking lot and waited for someone to get in. Once the driver did, the cop pulled them over. The suspect allegedly then admitted they were staying in the motel with six other people and that they'd been stealing credit cards, drivers licenses and checkbooks, among other items, from a string of Northeast Ohio communities including Medina County, Bedford Heights and Richfield.
A grand jury indicted the seven with a laundry list of charges — participating in a criminal gang, possession of criminal tools, receiving stolen property and identity fraud.
So what the hell are seven people from Florida doing tooling around the greater Cleveland area busting into cars to steal IDs and credit cards and camping out at a motel?
It looks like the most recent entry in what authorities have dubbed the Felony Lane Gang, Broward County's finest, exported all around the country using the same identify theft operation, including in Cleveland. It's not an official gang, per se, but the exploits and origin story have been well documented by former Scene staff writer Kyle Swenson down in Florida in this piece. The relevant section:
Every week, hustlers, hoods, prostitutes, and drug addicts from the Fort Lauderdale area are picked up in just about every corner of the country for running a scam copied from the same playbook. Dubbed the "Felony Lane Gang" by police, these organized crews target unsuspecting victims and steal their drivers' licenses and bank cards or checks. Then, frequently using hair dye and wigs, they or their coconspirators dress up like the victims to gain access to accounts. The crews systematically suck away the victims' funds, sometimes with the help of corrupt allies working inside tag agencies and banks. Just in the past year, 954ers have been busted in Virginia, Ohio, Arkansas, Maine, Kentucky, South Carolina, and Texas. "Why don't they stay down there and break into your cars?" a Lone Star State police official recently wondered aloud.
But the name is a bit of a misnomer. "Gang" suggests a single crime boss somewhere stroking a Siamese cat and directing his minions from a secret lair, or a legion of thugs with some sort of hierarchy. Today, crews pulling off this scam are unconnected bands of drifters laying siege to different corners of the country. Likely, millions of dollars a year are lost to these crews. In the words of a Broward cop who investigated the scheme, it's a national "epidemic," with local police and even the FBI trying to play catch-up. It's gotten to the point that financial institutions now budget for the loss. "We call it bank robbery without a gun," the detective says.
All thanks to Broward. The scam was founded and popularized here by enterprising hustlers from Fort Lauderdale, including a pair of crafty women known to local law enforcement as the "Godmothers." A special task force eventually mopped up early incarnations of the "gang," but Felony Lane lives on. It may be Broward County's single greatest contribution to the criminal underworld.