BURGLARS HEIST ATMS CRIME RING, OTHERS MAKE BIG HAULS IN VALLEY.
FBI agents call it a ``YAC attack,'' the burglary of an automatic teller machine by a notorious ring of thieves.
Nicknamed because many members are from Yugoslavia, Albania and Croatia, the ring has been outsmarting authorities nationwide by cutting holes in bank roofs and cracking ATMs.
They are part of a growing phenomenon of ATM burglaries across Los Angeles and the country, as these machines pop up on nearly every block and even in supermarkets.
At least 25 such machines have been burglarized within the past year in Los Angeles, including one in the San Fernando Valley that thieves cracked last month. In that break-in, the burglars pulled the ATM out of the ground and drove away with it.
And in all cases in the Valley this past year, there are no concrete suspects.
``They're really well-organized,'' said Detective Troy Bybee, officer in charge of the Los Angeles Police Department's Safe Detail. ``By the time the alarms in the vault go off, they're gone.''
Part of the reason for the increase in such burglaries in recent years, authorities said, is these seasoned thieves have learned that if they're caught, they face significantly less time in prison than if they commit a bank robbery.
And they don't have to worry about confronting guards, tellers or errant customers.
A bank robbery could bring 10 to 20 years in federal prison because it is considered a crime against a person, authorities said. An ATM burglary, however, is deemed a property crime and therefore brings just two to five years in prison, depending on the person's record.
``The sentencing is less and the exposure to risk is less. The risk of getting captured or shot is significantly higher in a robbery,'' said Robert Mack, a supervisory special agent for the FBI's Bank Robbery Squad in Los Angeles.
And there's more loot to be found in the well-stocked machines. The bandits often escape with more than $100,000 - 10 times what authorities said they would get in a bank robbery.
But burglars beware: Many banks are catching on, although they are reluctant to reveal specific security measures.
``It's been going on for three years now. The banks are very concerned about the problem,'' said Leland Chan, general counsel for the California Bankers Association, a trade group that represents and lobbies for banks.
``Banks are working more closely with police officers and taking preventative measures. But it's extremely difficult because of the thousands of ATMs on the street. It's difficult to put a guard on every one of them,'' Chan said.
Sometimes the burglaries are inside jobs, as police believe was the case at a Bank of America stand-alone ATM at 16920 Devonshire St. in Northridge.
Employees entered the safe and stole $236,000 - all in $20 bills, Bybee said. ``It was definitely an inside job with somebody having access to alarm codes and keys and combinations,'' he said.
No one has been arrested because the employees with access to the codes deny involvement. But a similar break-in occurred at the Bank of America ATM at the Sherman Oaks Galleria at 14006 Riverside Drive in October 1999, Bybee said. More than $93,000 was taken.
On Sept. 22, one inventive thief or group of them used a car or truck to steal an entire free-standing ATM that was bolted to the ground at the Cambridge Farms Market in West Hills.
``They tore the whole machine out,'' said Detective Greg De Rousseau of the West Valley Division's Burglary Unit.
The store's manager, who declined to give her name, was shocked. ``What will they think of next?'' she said.
Police are still searching for the thieves.
In recent weeks, the LAPD has been looking for the notorious YAC ring, usually consisting of groups of six people, authorities said. Armed with high-powered rifles, police scanners, two-way radios and lookouts, they have attacked ATMs across the country, including 10 times in Los Angeles over the past three years.
``We used to use the term 'a YAC attack,' '' FBI Agent Mack said.
They last hit a Bank of America ATM in Northridge in April 1999, when they cut a hole in the roof, quickly covered it with plywood and hid until police responded to the alarms, Bybee said.
``They lay back in a car across the street,'' the detective said.
Often, the police helicopters cannot detect the hole because it's covered, so police leave - and that's when this group goes to work.
They tunnel their way through the roof, cut through the ceiling of the ATM room and use high-powered tools to break into the money vault - without alarms, Bybee said.
And after snatching the cash, they leave all their tools and shoes behind in case they're caught.
``They only have the money on them,'' Bybee said.
In the Northridge case, the YACs got away with $91,800.
``They're very organized. They leave no finger- or shoe-prints. They're so transient. They're in and out very fast,'' the safe expert said.