5 Criminals Who Wreaked Havoc Using the Power of Science
You’re looking to embark on your latest criminal endeavor. You don’t have a gang, someone on the inside or a budget. What you do have is a nine-volt battery, a coat hanger, a lighter and a rubber band. Can you pull this scheme off?
We bet you can. All it takes is know-how and creativity to turn those bits of junk into a superweapon. And then you, too, can pull off a legendary heist, just like...
The Magnetic Thief
In 1981, Salim Kara got a job repairing fare boxes for Canadian rail. He spent the next 13 years robbing those boxes, netting himself $2 million.
Kara’s job didn’t grant him access to the coin compartments in those boxes. Jobs with that access are monitored closely enough that workers can’t easily spirit away the sacks of coins they’re routinely tasked with lugging around. No, Kara’s job simply put him in close proximity with the boxes, so he could show up at night and remove a box’s front plate. Then, he’d suck out coins, not by turning a key and opening a door but by attracting them with a magnet, one attached to a car antenna for extra reach.
Obviously, this wasn’t a very efficient method of robbery compared to, say, grabbing a briefcase of hundred-dollar bills. Still, he obtained thousands of dollars a week this way, all in coins. He deposited the coins at the bank, claiming they were from a vending machine business he pretended to own. The bank believed him because that was the most reasonable explanation for how anyone could ever come up with that much loose change.
Canadian transit did notice they weren’t collecting as many coins as predicted from those boxes, but the shortfall was so consistent, they dismissed it as a permanent problem in their counting system. Finally, they wised up and put an eye on Kara, who ended up caught and sentenced to prison for four years. He’d made out well for that decade during which he’d kept the scheme going. He even got enough to afford to build his own mini-mansion, complete with gothic columns. It was a testament to the power of steady honest work, and proof that a loonie grabbed is loonie earned.
The Robo Gun Briefcase
Donald Dean Stenger ran a major meth ring, which he managed to keep largely secret. He owned four gold mines, too. That might not sound prudent for a man trying to maintain a low profile, but gold mines are a good way to disguise income. He might have kept his operation under wraps for even longer than he did, but in September 1985, his brother was caught with a whole lot of meth on him. Stenger immediately bailed him out with $200,000 cash, which he apparently just had lying around the house, so police finally turned an eye his way.
The DEA went to arrest him in Douglas, Arizona, where he was storing two aircraft he owned. Stenger also happened to be there in person, and he fled. When the DEA gave chase, he actually managed to get away. At some point, he ditched his vehicle and went by foot over the Mexican border. In the absence of the man himself, the DEA set about tracking down and raiding his $20 million drug lab.
Two months after that, they found him — right in his home, in Colorado. They arrested him, of course. But they should have realized that this was all too easy. When they now searched the home, they came upon a closed briefcase, with an automatic rifle inside rigged to fire at them.
It was a booby trap worthy of any meth kingpin. It wasn’t enough to save him, though. They took him into custody, and while he was awaiting trial, he suddenly died of a meth overdose. He’d swallowed a condom of the stuff, which ruptured in his stomach and released enough drugs to kill him. Either he’d made a fatal mistake or this was exactly what he’d planned.
The Electric Train Robbers
We’ve all tried robbing trains before, and normally, the toughest part is boarding them. You don’t want to rob it at a station, which is filled with guards; you want to waylay the train somewhere else. This means either riding alongside the train while on your horse and then making the jump across or obstructing the tracks to force the train to stop. However, thieves in India in 2017 found another way.
Here’s how train signals work along the railway they targeted: Metal bars form a circuit, but a gap keeps the circuit open. When a train’s wheel fills that gap, the circuit closes, and the train signal automatically turns red, warning other trains from barreling forward along that same track. The thieves realized any piece of conducting metal could bridge that gap the same way. So, they hacked the circuit and turned the signal red by inserting a single one-rupee coin. This is a coin that, awesomely, features someone giving a thumb’s up (not to be confused with a Thums Up, which is an Indian version of Coke).
When the train stopped, the gang easily came aboard and relieved passengers of their phones and jewelry. The plan worked so well that they then repeated the trick half a dozen times on different trains. You see, some people are out there robbing railways of coins, but other people are robbing railways with coins.
The A.I. Voice Hackers
If you want to siphon tens of millions of dollars out of an account, you can’t just use some remote hack like in the movies. Some actual human being has to manually approve the transaction. The challenge before you is to fool that person, not just to fool a computer. Fortunately, hacking can help with both those missions.
In 2020, a team of as-yet-unidentified thieves mocked up some emails to make it look like a company just informed its manager in Hong Kong about a big deal. Then they called the manager and told him to approve a transfer of $35 million from their bank. Normally, even a bunch of convincing documents wouldn’t have been enough to persuade this manager to move ahead, but he knew the voice of the man talking to him. It was the director of the company that owned his company, so this Hong Kong manager went ahead and pressed the big green button.
The voice on the other end was not in fact the company director (who, now that we think about it, probably doesn’t make such calls personally anyway). It was a cybercriminal who’d cloned the director’s voice, using “deepfake” tech, or “A.I.,” or whatever other term makes the technology sounds the most scary. Truly, advances in technology have created new roads that were never before open. Never before open, that is, other than to accomplished comedians who imitate voices for fun.
The Weather Balloon Shooting
Alan Abrahamson’s death was clearly a homicide. The man was found dead of a gunshot wound in Florida in 2018, and the gun was nowhere to be found. While police would have to investigate to learn who had killed him and why, one thing was clear: He definitely hadn’t pulled the trigger himself. If he had, the gun would be right beside the body. The suicide question was important because if he had taken his own life, Abrahamson’s life insurance policy would not pay out.
But Abrahamson’s death really wasn’t a homicide. He’d shot himself in the heart. Right before that, he’d filled a weather balloon with helium and tied the gun to that balloon. Once his grip on the gun relaxed thanks his no longer being alive, the balloon yanked the gun into the air and carried it far away. It was the perfect crime — if insurance fraud that ends with you dead is your idea of perfection.
Investigators were first clued into the truth not by stumbling upon that gun still attached to a popped balloon miles away but by looking at the man’s search history. He had bought a weather balloon online for no normal purpose and had searched for such terms as “undetectable suicide methods” and “how many cubic feet of helium do you need to raise one pound?”
Abrahamson learned enough about tech to construct an ingenious evidence disposal system worthy of the CIA, but he was not tech-savvy enough to keep his searches private. This is understandable. The man was 71 years old.