Modern Burglars are bringing "Ocean's Eleven" Tactics to your Neighbourhood
Posted on August 20 2018
Long Island, New York, produce dealer Mike Longo knew there was a problem the moment his phone rang in the wee hours of a Sunday morning in July 2010. "Nothing good happens at 3 in the morning," he told CNBC's "American Greed." "When you get a phone call, it's never good news."
He said his worst fears were realized when he arrived at his business, Arrow Produce, to find an estimated $150,000 in cash and property missing. "Everything was taken from me," he said. "Everything you work for your entire life."
Longo said he initially suspected an inside job because the burglary was so precise. The burglars had managed to enter the warehouse during a rare stretch of down time, disabling an alarm system hidden deep inside the old building.
But investigators eventually traced the break-in to a prolific, high-tech burglary crew that hit more than 50 Long Island businesses over five years, stealing an estimated $10 million.
Nine people pleaded guilty to state and federal charges including burglary and interstate transportation of stolen property. They included ringleader Nikitas Margiellos, who is serving a 10-year prison sentence, and New York City Police Detective Rafael Astacio, who admitted supplying inside information to crew members and helping them evade police. Astacio is serving a six-year prison sentence.
"This was far from a smash-and-grab operation," said Rick Whelan, chief of the Organized Crime and Rackets Bureau in the Nassau County District Attorney's Office, in an interview with "American Greed." "This is, in my experience, likely the most sophisticated burglary crew that I've encountered."
Chris Caffarone, an assistant United States attorney for the Eastern District of New York, said the crew was so advanced, it was like something out of the movies.
"It was like 'Ocean's Eleven,' just without Brad Pitt, George Clooney and Matt Damon," he said.
It is also the wave of the future, according to security expert Don Aviv, president of Inter for International, a New York-based consulting firm. He said modern burglars are combining old techniques like physical surveillance with 21st-century tools, including the vast amount of information now available online through social media as well as subscription databases.
"It's a game-changer for criminals," Aviv told "American Greed." "They can determine a tremendous amount of information about you — the value of your home, whether you're in arrears, your mortgage situation, how many cars you have, how much work you've done on your home. All this can help paint the picture of whether you make a great target for them."
To thwart this new breed of burglar, Aviv said home and business owners need to take a similar approach — combining low-tech and high-tech protection.
On the low-tech end, Aviv said the first step is to think like a burglar.
"If you harden your facility, that will make a burglar want to go elsewhere and that's the key to everything. You want your burglar to look at your home, test your home and say, 'You know what? Let me move on to an easier home.'"
He said that includes installing proper lighting — he recommends the motion- sensing variety — as well as trimming bushes and trees, and investing in strong doors, windows and locks.
"If you improve the locks, the windows, the doors, lighting – anything to harden your house – you'll do a tremendous amount to protect your home," he said.
And do away with the spare key under the mat or in the flower pot. It is one of the first things crooks will look for.
On the higher-tech side, always be careful of what you post on social media. It is not just your Facebook friends who are reading your posts. Burglars are watching, too, including some that may live right in your neighbourhood.
"They will monitor social media to determine whether, 'Hey, I'm going away on vacation,' or 'I'm taking the kids to Florida.' They'll look for times of opportunity and that's when you're away," Aviv said.
If you have a smart home, make sure crooks can't outsmart it.
"Use the same security techniques and protocols that you would to protect your banking, your businesses and everything that you do when it comes to social media and your computing," he said. "Smart homes are basically big computers these days so protect your passwords, make sure your Wi-Fi is secure, the neighbors can't use it, it's not open to the public."
Sounding the alarm
Newer alarm systems can be great deterrents, Aviv said, but only if you use them properly.
"The majority of Americans do not activate their home alarm systems," he said. "They buy the alarm system, they sign up for it, or it comes with their home, and then they'll use it for a couple of months. And then after that they'll say, 'You know what? Nothing is happening in this time period, so I'll just let it go.'"
And don't think that a yard sign or a window sticker signifying an alarm system is enough to deter today's burglar.
"Burglars spend time watching your property, determining your patterns, understanding when it is that you leave for work, when your kids go to school, when you come home, and they understand your patterns," he said. "Couple of days of watching your patterns and they'll understand when's the best time to attack your home and that's what they'll do."
Then, he said, it is easy enough for a would-be burglar to check a door or window to determine if you turned on the alarm before you left.
Aviv recommended coupling an alarm system with security cameras whenever possible.
"One does not work without the other," he said. "An alarm system's great, but if it's a false alarm, you'll never know whether someone's testing your door if you don't have a camera, and vice versa. If you have a camera, but no one's alerted of the fact that someone's breaking into your home until after the fact, the only thing that the camera will be good for is the footage for the police."
Don't stop at the outside walls when it comes to protecting your valuables. If burglars make it past your outer layer of security, make sure they cannot easily find what they are looking for.
"The first place they go is typically the bedrooms, the master bedrooms," Aviv said. "They know that jewelry and cash and passports and valuables are often kept in the master bedroom, so they'll check that first."
Consider keeping your valuables someplace less obvious. If you use a safe, remember that the burglars can just carry it out of your house and open it later —but only if they can find it first.
Other common-sense tips include more communication with your neighbours.
"Your neighbors are your best friends. When it comes to protecting your home, neighborhood watches, neighborhood awareness, good neighbors make for good security and that's something that can't go underestimated," he said.
Business owner Mike Longo, who beefed up security considerably after he was hit, said even the most state-of-the-art system cannot substitute for basic awareness.
"I don't like to say this but, you know, you can't trust anyone as far as that goes," he said.
But Longo said he tries to think of it in a more positive way.
"You know, you're making it a better workplace for the people that work for you," he said. "So, look at it that way."