Winslow Police Chief Shawn O’Leary said a stolen credit card used to buy several prepaid credit cards April 30 at the Rite Aid store on China Road first appeared to be a routine case of fraud.

That was until reports of a man fitting the description of a person doing the same thing at Rite Aids in Waterville and Oakland were brought to his attention.

Now O’Leary thinks the man may be connected to an organized criminal group from Florida called the Felony Lane Gang, whose members break into cars parked outside fitness or day care centers and steal handbags and purses left on the seats.

O’Leary posted an alert on the department’s Facebook page Monday warning residents about the possible arrival of the group in Maine.

“That’s very consistent to how this gang works,” O’Leary said Friday of the credit card incident. “In addition to that, we’ve had intelligence information from the state police and other law enforcement agencies letting us know that this gang or this organized crime group was traveling up the East Coast committing these crimes.”

O’Leary said there “is a likelihood” that the gang is operating in Maine.

The Felony Lane Gang Task Force hopes to spread awareness of the Florida-based group that uses stolen identification, credit cards, debit cards and checks to commit fraud. Winslow police Chief Shawn O'Leary thinks the gang is operating in the Waterville area.

The Felony Lane Gang Task Force hopes to spread awareness of the Florida-based group that uses stolen identification, credit cards, debit cards and checks to commit fraud. Winslow police Chief Shawn O’Leary thinks the gang is operating in the Waterville area. Facebook image

The Winslow police Facebook page notes that the Felony Lane Gang takes its name from its members’ preference for using the farthest drive-up teller lane at banks, which makes their identification more difficult.

The Felony Lane Gang usually targets cars driven by women who are making quick stops or running errands, he said. They use the driver’s license, debit cards and credit cards to cash checks that are stolen from cars in other locations. They are also known to recruit local people who resemble the victims to cash the checks.

Stephen McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety, said Friday that all Maine law enforcement agencies are aware of the group and its practices.

“We get these traveling con artists that come in all the time, and this is the latest version of them,” he said.

The administrator of the Facebook page Felony Lane Gang Task Force said by phone Friday from Virginia that the group is indeed a gang, not just an unorganized group of smash-and-grab thieves.

“They hit everything from day care centers where mom drops the kids off before she goes to work or runs her errands, and within less than a couple of minutes her vehicle has been broken into, pocketbook stolen and any other valuables that might be in the car, too,” said the administrator, who asked not to be identified for security reasons.

The task force – made up of law enforcement officers – has been in operation for about 12 years, the administrator said. It established a Facebook presence in November 2014 to spread the word about the gang and try to help prevent more incidents. The administrator said the social media link is a way for law enforcement to communicate with the public about the gang’s activities.

The administrator said the group’s activity is coordinated and not random, operating out of the Fort Lauderdale area in Broward County, Florida.

“What they do down there is rent a vehicle under somebody’s name. We don’t know exactly who, because the rental companies won’t give any information out, for privacy purposes. As soon as they rent a vehicle, they drive away and steal a license plate and then they go and do their little deal.”

The task force administrator said gang members solicit the help of local people who are down on their luck – homeless people, drug addicts, prostitutes – to cash the stolen checks for a cut of the take, and that until late 2015, most law enforcement agencies where the gang had been active thought the break-ins were just kids breaking into cars.

The administrator said that law enforcement agencies along the East Coast are seeing the gang’s activities more often.

“They were in Massachusetts last week and in Winslow and Yarmouth, Maine. They just travel around the country. Right now we are tracking thousands of them.”

The Yarmouth and Bath police departments also posted warnings on their Facebook pages earlier this week.

The administrator said the gang does not wear unifying colors or display bandanas or public signs or symbols identifying them as Felony Lane Gang members.

The victims of the theft end up being credit card companies, banks, big-box stores and small convenience stores that the members defraud, the administrator said.

Police in Waterville and Oakland did not respond immediately Friday to calls for comment on the gang’s presence.

O’Leary, in Winslow, advised local residents to be cautious.

“Please lock your cars and do not leave your purses and other valuables visible in your car,” O’Leary said in the Facebook post. “Do not confront these individuals, and report all suspicious activity to the police. Immediately report to the police if your license plate is stolen or your car is broken into. And immediately report to your financial institution if your driver’s license, debit card, credit card or checks are stolen.

“Lastly, do not agree to cash checks for anyone that you don’t know personally, and report to the police if you are asked to cash a check by a stranger.”