The NYPD executed a pre-dawn takedown in three boroughs on Tuesday as they looked to apprehend a crew responsible for stealing $500,000 from victims in a long-running financial, bar-crawl scam.
amNewYork Metro followed the Financial Crimes Task Force during the early hours of Feb. 6 as they prepared to initiate a slew of arrest warrants.
Inside Harlem’s 28th Precinct, Sergeant Matt Doherty briefed his team as they looked to culminate a year and a half long investigation. According to Doherty, a five-person group has been targeting Lower-Manhattan nightlife, prowling ritzy bars and clubs and preying on unsuspecting victims.
These criminals allegedly strike up conversations with men at the locations, plying them with drinks until they become friends — but the victims are completely unaware of the trouble they are about to find for themselves.
“They’re savvy, they’re well dressed, they’re affluent. They go out, they chat you up like they’re your friend. They’ll talk to you about everything from sports to Instagram, to after hour spots,” Sgt. Doherty explained. “Once they gain your trust, you start to have a couple of drinks with them. A few more drinks lead to a few more, and next thing you know you’re waking up the next morning and your property is missing.”
While police say they do not believe there to be a sexual element involved, the group are said to utilize females to make their victims feel more comfortable.
Drunk, then sunk
After boozing up their targets and gaining their confidence, the new friends return to their homes or hotel rooms, where they continue to drink. The crooks then wait for their victims to drift off into an alcohol-induced slumber before making their strike.
“They have been removing cell phones and credit cards. Once they get the victims property, they’ve been going to high end stores as well as Apple, where they have been running up charges upwards of $100,000 to $200,000 per incident,” Doherty explained.
Over the course of an 18-month period, police say, about 40 people’s financial assets have been completely cleaned out — resulting in embarrassment and staggering losses.
“I ended up just walking into a couple bars alone because my new apartment was right there. And I walked into Pianos, it’s a bar in the Lower East Side. When I walked in there it was very late at night, I was intoxicated, also tired and two women were seemingly very interested in talking to me,” one victim, who wished to remain anonymous, told amNewYork Metro. “They eventually were able to get my wallet, I believe it was a sleight of hand thing and then eventually the bar closed down. So, it probably was towards 4 a.m. at that point and on the way out they were able to get my phone for me.”
Outside the station house, under the cover of darkness, the Financial Crimes Task Force suited up for the takedown, pulling over ballistic vests and helmets, clutching large shields and battering rams, and mulling over search warrants. From there the battle-ready cops piled into several vehicles and raced to the first apartment in Harlem.
Then the moment came: The cops burst into the building, after rushing up to the apartment flashlights could be seen bouncing behind curtained windows, muffled yells drifted to the street below. However, the suspect was not at home — and the task force was forced to leave empty handed.
Next the cops sped to the Bronx where a similar scene unfolded — as police again burst into a NYCHA building, climbed up 13 flights of stairs, only again to find an empty apartment waiting for them. According to those in the department, this exemplifies the difficulties and complexities of police work, showcasing that no manner of planning can prepare cops for what they might find.
Undeterred, the task force then hit Red Hook, Brooklyn where they struck pay dirt — apprehending 30-year-old Blerina Preluvkaj for her alleged involvement in the alcohol-fueled scam. She attempted to hide her face from amNewYork Metro’s cameras, thrashing back and forth as she was swiftly whisked away in cuffs.
“She was taken into custody without incident. She’s responsible for numerous incidents of stolen credit cards, defrauding victims, over $100,000, using these credit cards to buy high-end merchandise,” Lieutenant Joseph Dellauniversita explained. “After a year and a half of a lot of hard work. It’s nice to see that we’re able to get a perpetrator off the street and stop these crimes from happening.”
Preluvkaj was allegedly working under the command of the group’s ringleader, 33-year-old Julian Pomales who was also cuffed back in October and was arraigned in court on Tuesday afternoon.
Both Pomales and Preluvkaj are charged with multiple counts of identity theft, grand larceny, and conspiracy while police pledge to swiftly apprehend those still outstanding. Two of the identified outstanding suspects are 20-year-old Promise Shippy and 32-year-old Malcolm Scott.
“The NYPD did a great job as far as looking into the purchases, looking at surveillance footage — all these different things to be able to find them. So, I love the justice on that front,” the anonymous victim said.
Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg advised New Yorkers to take precautions when meeting new people, and to always use strong passwords on your devices.
“We allege that these four individuals targeted intoxicated New Yorkers and used their credit cards and financial apps to purchase hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of merchandise at Apple and luxury retailers,” said District Attorney Bragg. “We are working with retailers to make sure their business practices do not encourage large-scale, late-night unauthorized purchases. But with phone thefts yielding increasingly large payouts, we are also urging New Yorkers to take precautions. Never hand your phone to a stranger and always use strong passcodes. Keep an eye on your wallet and personal belongings, and frequently check your credit card statements for fraud. This investigation is ongoing. If you notice suspicious activity and think you may be a victim of identity theft, call us at 212-335-8900.”