An organised crime gang has stolen almost $1 million from victims in Melbourne and Sydney using distraction techniques copied from South America.
Large amounts of cash are being stolen from victims who are distracted by having oil or faeces being sprayed on their clothing or having their car tyres slashed.
Police fear the gang of up to six offenders may have many more victims and say it appeared one person a week was being targeted.
The gang has targeted anyone who has withdrawn large amounts of money from their bank or other financial institutions like currency exchanges in Glen Waverley, Box Hill, Clayton, Elsternwick and Brighton since 2009.
Nine incidents have been reported in Melbourne, including one this week at Target in Dandenong. There have been five robberies since July.
Two similar incidents were reported in Burwood, a suburb of Sydney, in January and April.
Nobody has been injured in the incidents.
Detective Sergeant Nathan Kaeser from Monash crime investigation unit said some of the men, who are of Middle Eastern, Indian and South American origin, have been captured on bank security footage.
"It seems to be methodically thought out and well planned and they’re getting a lot of money without hurting innocent people or involving others," Detective Sergeant Kaeser said.
"Times are tough, these people obviously need cash and this seems to be a very easy way of getting it."
In one case, they targeted an elderly man who had just withdrawn $5500 in cash from a bank in Glen Waverley.
In other thefts, the gang made off with $20,000 and $15,000 from separate victims.
On October 2, a woman and her son withdrew a large amount of money from a bank in Clayton Road, Clayton.
The pair started to drive home before they realised they had a flat tyre and pulled over on Springs Road in Clarinda.
While the son changed the tyre, the woman stood on the nature strip and was approached by a man who struck up a conversation with her.
When the woman got back into the car she realised that her handbag, containing the money she had withdrawn, was missing.
In a separate incident on September 24, an elderly victim withdrew $5500 from a bank in Glen Waverley before driving to Centro The Glen shopping centre and parking in the underground car park.
One method the gang uses is to slash the victims’ car tyres before one of the men offers to help them fix the tyre. While the driver is distracted, one of the men then steals the cash from the vehicle.
If this does not work because the victim has the cash on them in a jacket, the offenders spray the jacket while the victim changes the tyre and then steal the jacket once it is removed.
On other occasions, the victim has been distracted by the vile smell of liquid that has been sprayed on their clothing. The clothing is either removed, or the offender then offers to help clean the clothing and uses this opportunity to steal the cash.
The offenders have managed to avoid detection at banks by rotating after a few minutes so it does not appear they are loitering.
John, a furniture store owner from Clayton, said he had withdrawn thousands of dollars from a bank on August 14.
He got a flat tyre driving home, then was approached by a man who said he had something on his jacket while he changed the tyre.
John changed the tyre and continued to his store, but took his jacket off when he went inside. Two minutes later, he came back outside and found the window smashed and his money gone.
"Since it’s happened all the staff use internet bank[ing]. No more cash," John said.
"They are very well organised."
In one of the most daring robberies on July 4, the thieves are believed to have slashed the tyre of a woman’s vehicle as it was stopped at a red light in Glen Waverley.
The woman pulled over and a man approached her and offered to help change the tyre.
As the the woman went to the back of her car, the man grabbed her handbag and ran off with her money.
Detective Constable Gavin Divine said it appeared the distraction techniques had been copied from those used commonly by South American thieves. Similar techniques had also been recently used in Europe, but was believed they were South American in origin, he said.
Police have had difficultly linking the crimes because they have also been reported under categories, either as thefts from vehicle or thefts from person, and are trawling through previous cases to see if more victims have come forward.
Detectives have released CCTV images of men they would like to question over the attacks, and have appealed for anyone with information to contact Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000 or visit www.crimestoppers.com.au.