Sunday, July 20, 2008

Theft teams target mums in maternity wards

THEY'RE incredibly brazen, quick and heartless - a two-woman team that has stolen more than $1 million from patients in Sydney's biggest hospitals, aided and abetted by banks.
In most cases, the pair targets maternity wards, preying on women who have just given birth.

After stealing their wallets, they use their victims' credit and key cards to empty their accounts, thanks to incredibly lax security by tellers at Australia's major banks.

A police strike force has been set up to catch the thieves, who have robbed almost 200 people across Sydney in the past year.

The robbers have struck at the Westmead, Nepean, Bankstown, Royal North Shore, Royal Women's, Sydney Adventist and Mater hospitals.

Detective Sergeant Roland Winter believes there are two separate two-woman teams involved in the scam. He said they worked fast, netting as much as $30,000 from a victim's accounts in the space of 45 minutes.

The women have also begun to target gyms and school staff rooms.

Among their victims is Mary-Louise Lacey, who was robbed of $22,500 two days after giving birth to her son Angus at the Mater Hospital, North Sydney.

When the mother of three left her hospital room briefly on January 17, the thieves struck immediately.

Seventeen minutes later, they were at the ANZ Bank in North Sydney, posing as Ms Lacey.

"If you go into a bank and say you've forgotten your PIN, if you can produce enough ID, you can change the PIN on the spot, which is what these women did," Ms Lacey said.

They handed the teller identification from Ms Lacey's wallet, including an unaltered driver's licence.

Despite the photograph not matching, the teller allowed them to change the PIN on the keycard, which gave them access to Ms Lacey's five accounts.

They then visited two other ANZ branches, filled in withdrawal slips and stole a total of $22,500.

The ordeal was made more distressing for Ms Lacey because it took her six weeks to get the money reimbursed. Instead of enjoying her new baby, she spent countless hours on the phone to the bank.

"I was in a hospital bed and they told me I would have to come into the bank to verify my identity, yet they allowed two strangers to walk in and clear out my bank accounts in 45 minutes," she said.

Ms Lacey cancelled direct debits from the account but they continued for three months, resulting in overdrafts and bank fees of $500 that she said the bank had refused to waive.

"It was a very stressful time and I would hate anyone else to have to go through it," she said.

Ms Lacey warned new mothers to watch their valuables while in hospital.


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