MOB: Po­lice, FBI task force tar­gets Eurasian crime groups ac­tive in Las Ve­gas

Las Vegas Review-Journal - - NEVADA & THE WEST -

con­nec­tions, es­pe­cially to mob­sters in East­ern Europe and coun­tries that made up the for­mer Soviet Union.

Like the tra­di­tional Mafia that once ruled the streets of Las Ve­gas, these groups are ca­pa­ble of vi­o­lence. But they would rather spend their time reap­ing the re­wards of swip­ing stolen credit cards on the Strip or us­ing their knowl­edge of technology to stay ahead of au­thor­i­ties on the com­puter-as­sisted crime cir­cuit.

Tar­get­ing Eurasian syn­di­cates is now the top pri­or­ity of the FBI and other law en­force­ment agen­cies in the nation’swar on or­ga­nized crime.

To do so, au­thor­i­ties have es­tab­lished four joint task forces, in Las Ve­gas, New York City, Los An­ge­les and Mi­ami.

The fed­eral in­dict­ment of Dim­itrov and 10 oth­ers in May is the first case brought by the South­ern Ne­vada East­ern Euro­pean Or­ga­nized Crime Task Force. Their pros­e­cu­tion is on­go­ing.

“Our goal is to get the worst of the worst,” said Tracy Dock­ery, su­per­vi­sor of the FBI’s Or­ga­nized Crime Squad in Las Ve­gas. “I think we’re go­ing to have a lot of long-term in­ves­ti­ga­tions.”

Help­ing Dock­ery shape the task force are two vet­eran LasVe­gas po­lice lieu­tenants, Dave Logue of the Crim­i­nal In­tel­li­gence Sec­tion, and RobertDu­Vall of the Fi­nan­cial Crimes Sec­tion.

Some agen­cies, in­clud­ing the In­ter­nal Rev­enue Ser­vice and U.S. Im­mi­gra­tion Cus­toms En­force­ment, help on a part­time ba­sis, and Dock­ery said she is ex­tend­ing for­mal in­vi­ta­tions to those agen­cies and oth­ers to par­tic­i­pate full time. The stakes are high for au­thor­i­ties. Logue said East­ern Euro­pean crime syn­di­cates steal tens of mil­lions of dol­lars each year in South­ern Ne­vada through “ev­ery kind of fraud imag­in­able.

“The com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor in all of these scams is iden­tity and credit theft,” he said. “They dream up a scam and it kind of pro­lif­er­ates, and by the time we catch up, they’re al­ready full speed. They’re very in­no­va­tive. If there’s a scam out there, they’ll find it.”

Dock­ery said this new breed of mob­sters is adept at ma­nip­u­lat­ing the nation’s fi­nan­cial sys­tem.

“Ev­ery weak­ness they can ex­ploit, they find it, and they fig­ure out a way to ex­ploit it un­til we take that weak­ness away,” she said.

In the case of Dim­itrov and com­pany, pros­e­cu­tors al­lege the crime ring sent straw buy­ers to lo­cal car deal­ers claim­ing to be high-salaried em­ploy­ees of phony com­pa­nies to ob­tain fi­nanc­ing for lux­ury ve­hi­cles. The buy­ers took pos­ses­sion of the cars be­fore the deal­ers and their loan com­pa­nies had fully ver­i­fied the credit in­for­ma­tion.

Pros­e­cu­tors al­lege the group also in­stalled small scan­ning de­vices at lo­cal ATMs to steal per­sonal bank in­for­ma­tion and PINs from cus­tomers us­ing the ma­chines. Then, af­ter en­cod­ing the in­for­ma­tion onto blank plas­tic cards with mag­netic strips, the group stole at least $700,0000 us­ing ATMs around the val­ley.

One of the lures of this kind of crime is that it gen­er­ally isn’t dis­cov­ered for quite a while, Du­Vall said.

“The per­son who com­mits this crime is anony­mous sit­ting be­hind a com­puter,” he said. “The only risk is maybe putting a de­vice on an ATMand tak­ing it off.”

Michael LaPlante, who heads the FBI’s Eurasian Or­ga­nized Crime Unit in Washington, said the rise of East­ern Euro­pean crime syn­di­cates in this coun­try co­in­cided with the col­lapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Among the wave of im­mi­grants from the for­mer Soviet Union were crim­i­nals tak­ing ad­van­tage of their new­found free­doms, LaPlante said.

“They were used to con­duct­ing crim­i­nal ac­tiv­ity in a very bureau­cratic-laden, state-driven so­ci­ety, but when they came here they were able to op­er­ate freely. Our sys­tem is a very open so­ci­ety.”

Crime groups from Rus­sia, Bul­garia, Ukraine, Ge­or­gia, Al­ba­nia and Ar­me­nia are among those op­er­at­ing in the United States, LaPlante said.

He said the FBI doesn’t have a han­dle yet on the ex­tent of the groups op­er­at­ing in this coun­try, but agents know their num­bers are grow­ing.

Most of the syn­di­cates find it hard to re­sist the “glitz and glam­our” of Las Ve­gas, where cash flows freely ev­ery day, he said.

“Cash is the biggest rea­son they’re here,” Logue added.

He re­called how an Ar­me­nian crime group re­cently sent crews to Las Ve­gas to hit the casi­nos with “stacks” of stolen credit and ATM­cards.

“They went up and down the Strip get­ting cash ad­vances,” he said. “They were here for a few days and then split. Their take was hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars for a cou­ple of days.”

Dock­ery said thieves can blend in eas­ily on the Strip.

“No­body thinks any­thing of some­body whowalks into a casino with a credit card and pulls $20,000 off that credit card,” she said. “Where else in this coun­try can you do that other than in a casino? You can’t go to New York City and walk into a busi­ness and say, ‘I want to take $20,000 off my credit card,’ with­out eye­brows be­ing raised.”

why

Eurasian crime groups present many chal­lenges to law en­force­ment.

“The groups are fluid,” Logue said. “They may be here to­day. They may be in Los An­ge­les to­mor­row. They might be back East the next day. They don’t op­er­ate in the same way we’re used to see­ing.”

The groups also main­tain out­side the United States.

“They op­er­ate all over the world,” Dock­ery said. “It makes it very hard for us to fol­low them.”

Dim­itrov, for ex­am­ple, was over­heard on FBI wire­taps brag­ging that he had “crews” in France, Spain and Por­tu­gal and fre­quently made trips to Ar­gentina, Brazil, Peru and Ecuador. Agents also over­heard him talk­ing about ties to crime fig­ures in Bul­garia.

Au­thor­i­ties said they had a much eas­ier time keep­ing tabs on the Mafia in the 1970s and 1980s, when it con­trolled loan-shark­ing and other street rack­ets and skimmed money from casi­nos.

“They were struc­tured,” Logue said. “There were sol­diers and there were lieu­tenants, and they pretty much op­er­ated out of one area. They would travel, but you al­ways knew where to find them.”

Eurasian crime groups have “shot­callers” in the United States and in their na­tive coun­tries, and money earned from il­licit ac­tiv­i­ties here goes back to those coun­tries, au­thor­i­ties said. But for the most part, the groups are more loosely struc­tured than the Mafia.

in­ter­ests

In­di­vid­ual crim­i­nals also have the abil­ity to in­su­late them­selves from the over­all ac­tiv­i­ties of their re­spec­tive or­ga­ni­za­tions. Some spe­cial­ize in iden­tify theft, oth­ers in credit card fraud and still oth­ers in au­to­mo­bile theft. Gen­er­ally, each won’t know what the oth­ers are do­ing.

In many ways, au­thor­i­ties said, East­ern Euro­pean crime groups are more brazen than tra­di­tional Amer­i­can syn­di­cates be­cause they know they can get away with bend­ing the law more in this coun­try.

“The free­doms we have here make our work a lit­tle tougher to do than some­body over in East­ern Europe who ba­si­cally kicks in your door any­time they want to find out what you’re do­ing,” Du­Vall said.

In its hey­day, Logue said, the Mafia would work with other eth­nic crime fam­i­lies, but it was usu­ally pro­tec­tive of its ter­ri­tory.

“These groups will work with any­body, any­where,” he said. “They’ll align them­selves with other groups and let those groups profit, as long as they are mak­ing their money.”

Au­thor­i­ties say Eurasian crime syn­di­cates are smart enough to un­der­stand that us­ing vi­o­lence at­tracts more at­ten­tion to their ac­tiv­i­ties, and they try to avoid it, un­less they find it use­ful.

“These peo­ple come from coun­tries where vi­o­lence is pretty bru­tal,” Logue said. “They’d think noth­ing of shoot­ing you or beat­ing you up.”

The groups are adept at in­tim­i­dat­ing wit­nesses whose fam­i­lies of­ten are known to the groups in their na­tive coun­tries, he said.

“They’ll flat out tell them that if you co­op­er­ate (with au­thor­i­ties), we’ll kill your fam­ily,” he said.

Lan­guage is also a bar­rier. When con­duct­ing wire­taps, the FBI of­ten has to find in­ter­preters who know the lan­guage or di­alect be­ing spo­ken by the sus­pects. Many of the sus­pects speak mul­ti­ple lan­guages, mak­ing it even tougher to find enough in­ter­preters.

The in­ter­na­tional tone of these cases also forces the FBI to work with law en­force­ment agen­cies in East­ern Europe. That some­times in­volves diplo­macy that can com­pli­cate the in­ves­ti­ga­tions. But it also gives the FBI and its law en­force­ment part­ners an op­por­tu­nity to build re­la­tion­ships with their over­seas coun­ter­parts to gain more in­sight into the ac­tiv­i­ties of the crime groups.

“We’re learn­ing how they op­er­ate,” Du­Vall said. “We’re learn­ing how to go af­ter them. Ev­ery time we have a suc­cess, we learn that much more.”

DUANE PROKOP/ LASVE­GAS RE­VIEW-JOUR­NAL

Lt. Robert Du­Vall, left, of the Las Ve­gas po­lice fi­nan­cial crimes unit; Tracy Dock­ery, FBI su­per­vi­sory spe­cial agent of or­ga­nized crime/drugs; and Lt. Dave Logue, of the Las Ve­gas crim­i­nal in­tel­li­gence unit, head a task force tar­get­ing Eurasian crime groups.

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