Meet Steven Steals and his crew. Last year, they made six figures apiece boosting gear from electronics stores from coast to coast.
By Matt Caputo • Illustrations by Jon Proctor
It’s just after lunch on a typical busy workday in an outer borough of New York City. The traffic is still a few hours from hysteria. Supermarkets are receiving their weekly shipments, postal workers are delivering the mail, and a robbery is in progress at one of the largest electronics retailers in the country.
The key element—and the genius—of this robbery is that it won’t stand out from the hustle and bustle of lunch hour. The thieves will make off with two of the most expensive laptops on the market, hardly anyone will know they were there, and no one will realize a crime has been committed. Not for a good while, anyway.
Now, before you dismiss two laptops as small potatoes, consider this: These thieves strike frequently, several times a week, and they have a network of fences to turn their illicit merchandise into instant cash. They make a living—a good living—from their escapades.
They’ve been doing it for years, and they’ve got it down so well that they have no qualms about sailing into the store’s parking lot with weed exhaust pouring out the windows of their luxury SUV. This will be quick and easy. A two-man diversion job.
Steven Steals [all names in this story have been changed] visited the store the day before and disabled the alarms on a pair of $2,000 MacBook Airs. He simply released the USB alarm from the side of each computer and plugged them into an adjacent laptop on display. The alarms did sound for a few seconds while disconnected, but the staff disregarded them when they quickly subsided. Steals slipped the laptops into the drawer of a table and left.
Today, he and one of his partners, Nando, are back to finish the job. They enter the store and immediately find a service rep to distract by asking for help finding a computer charger they don’t need. While the service rep is away, Steals and Nando pretend to browse laptops. Standing next to the table, with plenty of other customers milling about, the thieves casually face each other. Nando lifts his shirt and Steals deftly fits the laptop between belt and waist. It’s done with the precision and speed of a NASCAR pit crew. It happens so fast I can understand how everyone else misses it. After a slight pause, they repeat the
action with the second laptop.
Now, Nando and Steals simply resume their window-shopping routine.
When the kid helping them returns with the charger, they scoff at the price but thank him and walk to the counter, seemingly ready to check out. They approach the line, only to “change their minds” and return the charger to the cashier, telling him they’ve decided not to purchase it. They exit past the employees posted at the door, checking receipts. They’re out of the store within 15 minutes of entering it, and simply walk through the corridor of the busy mall, stolen laptops stuffed in their shorts.
They pay $3 to the parking attendant, and will sell the MacBook Airs for about $1,200 apiece a few weeks later, giving them a tidy profit of $2,397 for 20 minutes of work over two days.
With the laptops casually strewn across the backseat, Nando and Steals motor to an ice-cream parlor about a mile from the store, and, after finishing the oversize blunt they were smoking before “work,” they eat large waffle cones with mounds of multicolored ice cream.
Just another day in the field for a hardworking team of full-time shoplifters.
Steals and Nando are part of a group of seasoned crooks who travel the country, preying on large chain stores, in search of the most expensive gadgets on the market. They won’t tell me the precise number of members in their group, but there are at least five. They’re all in their late twenties and have never had real jobs. Since they each make upward of $5,000 on a good day, they’ve never needed real jobs. They steal and sell the most expensive laptops, tablets, cameras, musical instruments, and any other premium item there’s a market for. They’ve stolen 400 pairs of Gucci shades on one job, a $35,000 guitar on another, and, on several occasions, six $3,000 cameras at a time, and up to eight $2,500 laptops in a single trip.
Steals, Nando, Bo, and Kev all met during junior high school and grew up in the “Triangle”—the Elmhurst, Corona, and Jackson Heights neighborhoods of Queens, in the shadow of Queens Center Mall on Queens Boulevard. Steals aspires to one day transition from roving shoplifter to fashion mogul—and it’s a plan the others are in on, though the particulars of its execution remain vague. Steals, Bo, and Kev have children, and they rely on a steady stream of theft to pay the bills. But their biggest motivation is freedom. The idea of a constrictive nine-to-five disgusts them; stealing has afforded them a lifestyle most working stiffs can only dream about.
Around the turn of the millennium, they saw the boom in the electronics industry as an opportunity to bring high-end gadgets to those in need at a cut rate. They switched from boosting Polo sweaters and DVDs to laptops, tablets, iPods, and digital cameras. Not only do they steal the latest technological gadgets, but they also use technology to make the job easier. Using a GPS, they map out logical routes to follow. Each thief uses Bluetooth so they can communicate in stores more discreetly—though they rarely need to. “We all know the same system, we all become one,” Steals says. “We work as one unit—we don’t even have to speak; we just look at each other.”
Steals is the leader of the group, and the most experienced. He completed his GED, and says he finished college for fashion design. He’s continually smoking weed or a cigarette, and has a deep, carefully pronounced way of speaking. But he’s also the cowboy of the crew, known for his quick thinking and risk-taking. While most of the guys say they’re comfortable taking two laptops at once, Steals says he’ll typically take three or four. He compares the members of his crew to “pirates” and criminals of the past, especially John Dillinger, who constantly changed locations to keep the authorities off his trail.
A few years ago, in Illinois, Steals jumped off a bridge to distract the police and help his buddies escape. The episode began in a chain store, where they got tripped up. They had to bolt, making it to the highway before being pulled over. “[The cop] was like, ‘Get out of the car!’ I got out of the car and he tried to grab me and throw me in handcuffs, so I fought him off and ran,” Steals says. “I was on the side of a highway and I felt like the bridge was getting low enough for me to jump. I didn’t even look; I just jumped over.”
Steals estimates that he fell four stories. He got up once and fell right back down, with a broken leg and a broken arm. Talk about taking one for the team: His buddies grabbed the wheel of the car and drove away with a day’s worth of stolen goods that they later turned into cash. As for Steals, “They charged me with…jumping off a bridge,” he says.
A few months after I witnessed the double laptop theft, I meet Steals and several members of his crew—Kev, Bo, and another, quieter guy, Twins. They’re parked next to the train tracks in a quiet section of Queens. Their ride is an ancient 34-foot RV they bought off the street. It’s the kind of vehicle that your grandparents might have bought in 1990. It’s a horrible shade of beige and looks about as safe as an aging wooden roller coaster. There’s enough seating for a dozen people, a small kitchenette, a dining table, and a bedroom with a king-size bed. They plan to revive the vehicle in time for the holidays, when the crew goes on a national shoplifting spree.
They kick off on Thanksgiving night and roll until a few days before Christmas, executing a synchronized plan that crisscrosses the nation. The timing and duration of the trips depend on financial need and market climate. They’ll ride out in a Winnebago (this is their second), or sometimes fly, and then rent a car. They pick a group of five states, map out the entire trip on a GPS, then hit every store they can from opening until closing. At the end of each day, they’ll ship the stolen goods home or directly to a customer so they’ve got a clean car to continue driving. It’s a game of numbers, and the more stores they hit, the more money they earn, and the more they get from one store, the better.
They eventually turn all the goods into cash via a network of buyers—people using Craigslist and eBay as a filter to sell stolen property, and retailers looking to stock their shelves at a higher profit. They might visit 8 to 10 stores to fill an order of 50 or 100 of a specific item. Usually, they’ll sell the products at a 40 to 60 percent discount. “I’ll make five grand in a day, working for six hours. It’s as much as I want to put into it. It’s not like there’s a bunch of feds looking for us,” Steals says. “It’s just a family-oriented thing. I wouldn’t say we’re gypsies, but I would say we’re like pirates.”
Here are some tricks of the trade they’ve developed over time: Never spend more than 15 minutes in one store. Change cars as often as possible by complaining to the rental service about squeaky brakes or weak airconditioning, etc. Pay for everything in cash. If you get pulled over, crack the screen of your GPS to erase the device’s history. Blend into your surroundings: If this means donning hunting gear in Colorado or posing as surfers in Santa Cruz, so be it.
As for inside the store, the crew has mastered many of the alarm systems retailers use to secure their goods. According to Steals, they also use “homemade tools” to disable loss-prevention devices. They look like they’re designed to pick locks, and that’s exactly what they do. Even without tools, the crew knows that alarms can be quickly silenced.
“It’s an alarm system—if you unplug it from a laptop it rings. It has buttons, a power cord, and a big speaker. I’ll grab that shit and take it with me like a time bomb, but if I hug it, I’ll muffle it enough for me to go to the other side of the store and stuff it into a drawer,” says Steals. “I’ll take it into the bathroom and pour water over it until it fucks up. I’ve grabbed a garbage can, gone to the bathroom, filled it with water, and then just dumped the whole shit in the garbage can and it goes deeew [makes the sound of a computer abruptly crashing]. Everything turns off. Then you just rape the whole section.”
Another trick involves stuffing a box from inside the store with smaller, more expensive items they’ve disabled in another section, and then paying for the less expensive item originally contained in the box. Let Steals explain: “One time, I went to an -other aisle and grabbed this big-ass printer box and I took the printer out of it, right there in the TV section. I filled it up with 13 items that cost $1,000 each. I re-taped it right in the back aisle.” The items had no alarms, he explains, because Steals had
picked the lock on a display case and snatched them from inside. He then proceeded to checkout.
“I took the big box to the register and paid $70 for $13,000 worth of shit.”
But having the knowledge of alarm systems and a strict, choreographed plan doesn’t always protect the crew from attracting attention. Quick thinking is a required skill in this line of work.
“I think it was the day the iPhone 3 came out,” says Kev. “We’re at the place, and we see people surrounding us, looking at us.” Somehow, they’d aroused suspicion, but they hadn’t boosted anything yet. They decided to cut bait and get out of there, but security blocked their exit. “They tried to bring us to a room,” says Kev, “but we didn’t have nothing anyway. What we did have was the working tools. But while they were searching us, they put us against the wall right where the [employee] coatracks were. We took our tools and stuffed them in the coats while they weren’t looking.”
Steals and his team have warned mall security guards that they can be sued if they injure the crew, even if the thieves are convicted of robbing the store. Typically, though, confrontations don’t rise to that level. But the boys have gotten to know the lay of the land in a number of different regions. “If you’re in Baltimore, you know the workers are going to be a little tougher than they are in fucking Milwaukee,” Steals says. “If you’re in the Bronx, well, the employees are thieves themselves, and they’re going to see you from afar.” Referring to the relatively sleepy environs of the Blue Hen State, he adds, “If you’re in Delaware, it’s a little bit better.”
We speak for nearly two hours, interrupted sporadically by the roar of the passing trains. It’s September, and by their standards there’s a lull in the stealing season. They’ll make some short runs before winter, but their sights are set on the annual Black
Friday trip, the one they claim earned them $340,000 last year. They’ve worked it out so they hit 200 stores, making about $2,000 at each stop.
There is risk involved, but so far the ride’s been well worth it. “If you just made six grand, do you really want Taco Bell? We’re all going to Ruth’s Chris Steak House,” says Steals. “It’s a rock-star life, and it’s hard to get out of it when you’re used to that kind of income.”
Especially if the law has given you no reason to quit—so far.