NEW YORK CITY (WABC) -- The NYPD says it is still searching for seven people involved in a sophisticated cellphone crime operation allegedly run by migrants in New York City.
Police identified the ring leader as 30-year-old Victor Parra -- and he is believed to be the mastermind behind the 14-member operation that involves hacking into stolen phones to drain victims' bank accounts.
So far police have arrested seven suspects, all of whom are migrants from Venezuela, and that poses a unique challenge for investigators.
"They're essentially ghost criminals. No criminal history. No photos. No cell phone. No social media. Sometimes we're even unclear on name or a date of birth. And on top of that these operations are extremely sophisticated," NYPD Commissioner Edward Caban said. "In recent months a wave of migrant crime has washed over our city, but by no means are the individuals committing these crimes representing the vast number of people coming to New York to build a better life."
Cleyber Andrade, 20, was arraigned Tuesday evening and held on $10,000 bail. He's charged with six counts of grand larceny in the fourth degree and six counts of criminal possession of stolen property.
Juane Uzcatgui, 23, was not held on bail because the charges he's facing are not bail eligible. He's charged with two counts of grand larceny in the fourth degree and two counts of stolen property.
The Manhattan District Attorney's Office had this to say about Uzcatgui, "The people are requesting supervised release at the highest tier and level. Although the people would have requested bail, the defendant is not bail eligible under the current statutory framework."
The other suspects were also expected to be arraigned in Bronx Criminal Court on Tuesday and have been hit with a slew of charges including grand larceny, tampering with evidence, and criminal possession of stolen property.
Police say they were part of a string of 62 phone thefts where thieves on scooters and mopeds snatched purses and phones out of women's hands on the street and in the subway system.
They would then bring them to the alleged crew leader's home, where a "tech guy" would hack the phones to gain access to victims' banking apps for fraudulent purchases in the U.S. and Central America, police said.
Officials say the suspects cleared hundreds of thousands of dollars from victims' bank accounts. The phones were then allegedly sent to Colombia, where they were wiped clean.
Parra, who is still being sought, ran the criminal enterprise of migrants predominantly living in the city's system from his apartment, according to police. Parra entered the country from Venezuela last year and appeared before a judge last December on a grand larceny charge.
"They use social media platforms to organize and coordinate their thefts. This is how they operate. The leader of the crew, identified as Victor Parra, will blast out a message via WhatsApp that he's looking for phones," Chief of Detectives Joe Kenny said.
A scooter operator would make $100 and a phone snatcher $300 to $600, authorities say.
Video released by the NYPD showed a 52-year-old woman being violently dragged by thieves on a scooter after being mugged of her bag, phone, credit cards, keys, glasses, $60 cash and her ID. It happened last month in the Sheepshead Bay section of Brooklyn.
Police recovered 22 stolen phones as well as victim's identification from Parra's home during a search on Monday.
The string started in November 2023 on the Upper East Side and the most recent incident was in Chinatown on Sunday night. The thefts occurred in every borough except Staten Island. Nearly 56% of them were in Manhattan.
Mayor Eric Adams was asked in Albany if he would consider an executive order to take away restraints that prevents the NYPD from collaborating with ICE.
"I believe if you create repeated felonies in our city, the federal government should do its job and have that individual deported from our city," Adams said. "There is a privilege to be here a participate in the American Dream. I don't have the authority to do that, the City Council would have to do that."
The news comes as criticism grows against Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg after just one of several migrants believed to have attacked two police officers in Times Square was put behind bars. Four others were released without bail.