Two Romanian pickpockets who traveled to Britain to steal thousands of pounds worth of mobile smartphones in diversionary thefts in bars, restaurants and cafes have been jailed today.
The father of seven, Ciprian Danila, 28, and Vasile Bancuta, 33, targeted victims by placing pieces of laminated card in front of their faces before attempting to strike up a “nonsensical” conversation.
The thefts took place between January 5 and January 14 this year in Manchester city center and adjacent suburbs, when the victims were enjoying a drink or food in branches of Costa Coffee and Starbucks, among others, plus pubs and restaurants.
While diners were distracted by the sight of the cards with foreign characters on them and irritated by the unwanted interruptions, Danila and Bancuta used the laminated leaflets as makeshift screens to secretly swipe victims’ phones off tables into their own pockets.
They then fled into the streets before the thefts were discovered.
Vasile Bancuta, 33, took five devices worth a total of £6,300 and was found in possession of £1,150 in cash when he was detained. He pleaded guilty to five counts of theft and money laundering
Father of seven Ciprian Danila, 28, stole 16 devices worth up to £1,400 each and admitted 16 charges of theft totaling £10,000
Danila and Bancuta from the town of Braila, eastern Romania, were arrested at their digs in Liverpool on January 24 this year following a joint police operation by the Greater Manchester and Merseyside forces.
During the crime spree, at least 21 phones were stolen in just nine days, with only one device being recovered by its owner who used the Find My iPhone app to track it down.
How the devious phone scams worked
- The pair walked over to a table armed with laminated pieces of paper covered in foreign letters
- They had nonsensical conversations with their victims
- While the restaurant patrons were distracted, the newspaper would be put over their phones
- When the innocent diner refuses to talk, the thieves grab the newspaper – along with the phone – and run for it before the missing device is noticed
Investigations revealed that the two men had used similar diversion theft and EU free movement rules to steal mobile phones in other European countries, including Spain, Germany, the Czech Republic and Portugal, where the modus operandi for their crimes is better known.
In the latest spate of insults, Danila stole 16 devices worth up to £1,400 each, while Bancuta captured five devices worth a total of £6,300.
All but one were sold on the black market, with Bancuta found in possession of £1,150 in cash when detained.
At Manchester Crown Court, the two men were each given 16 months in prison after Danila admitted 16 charges of theft totaling £10,000 and found Bancuta guilty of five thefts and money laundering.
Both were also given a five-year Criminal Behavior Order, banning them from taking newspapers or tickets into bars, cafes and restaurants across the UK.
The two men will now be deported at their own request after their release. A 46-year-old man was arrested during the police action, but was later released without charge.
The judge, Mr. Recorder Imran Shafi KC, sentenced Danila and Bancuta, saying, ‘This was a concerted campaign of transgressions.
Not only is there a financial loss for the victims, but there’s also the incredible inconvenience of not having your phone, which it seems everyone is completely dependent on these days — whether to help with personal obligations or professional matters .
Bancuta (pictured) had two convictions for theft in Spain in 2013, where he received suspended sentences. In 2015 he was convicted in Portugal of possession of an assault weapon and in 2017 he was convicted of dangerous driving before being sentenced to 20 months in prison there in 2019 for theft
In 2016, Danila (pictured) was convicted of theft in the Czech Republic for which he received a two-and-a-half-year prison sentence. He was convicted of theft in Germany in 2020 and jailed for 10 months and fined again there last year for a similar offense
“In addition, these phones will have sentimental value because they will have photos on them and may also have private content on them that the owners don’t want to share.”
The judge added: “There was some planning and sophistication in this simple and straightforward trust trick and it seemed that it was incredibly enterprising and effective for you.
“Obviously you both knew what you were doing.
“You would enter a busy bar or cafe, walk up to the victims’ table, place laminated pieces of paper with foreign letters on them in front of the victims, and engage in phony or even nonsensical conversations with them.
“While the victims were distracted by what you were trying to say to them, you placed the laminated paper on the phone. Of course, and as you wished, you picked up the laminated paper and walked out when they refused to interact with you.
“No doubt the victims would have been thankful you left them alone, but they wouldn’t have been thankful for losing their phone. These were all smartphones of some value.
“It was a planned, persistent, pernicious attack on people who enjoy themselves. It is clear to me that both of you are thoroughly dishonest individuals and neither of you have any real remorse. Any remorse would come from being caught.
“I take note of your assertion that your families will experience hardship as a result of your confinement in this country, but any misfortune that has befallen your families is your own fault – not anyone else’s.”
The two men will now be deported at their own request after their release. A 46-year-old man was arrested during the police operation, but was later released without charge Photo: Bancuta
Danila, pictured, crying during the hearing, had previously been convicted of an identical robbery in the UK in 2020, for which he received community service
Defense counsel Mr Raj Chopra said both men came from “sad backgrounds” and their families would suffer if they were imprisoned in the UK. He claimed that Danila had only come to the UK to visit friends but became involved in the thefts under the influence of drink
Miss Kate Gaskell’s prosecutor said: ‘All the incidents were identical and were captured on CCTV and apart from one phone which was tracked down by the victim herself, none of the devices were recovered.
Clothes matching those of the thieves were found at the address of the defendants when they were arrested.
Danila matched the man in the CCTV photos as Bancuta was found in possession of a piece of paper in a plastic wallet written in a foreign language.
He also had an amount of cash in his pocket and matched CCTV footage from other similar thefts. Neither of them commented during the police interrogation.’
Danila, who cried during the hearing, had a previous conviction for an identical robbery in the UK in 2020 for which he received community service.
In 2016, he was convicted of theft in the Czech Republic, for which he received a two-and-a-half-year prison sentence. In 2020, he was convicted of theft in Germany and jailed for 10 months, and was fined again there last year for a similar offense.
Bancuta had two convictions for theft in Spain in 2013, where he received suspended sentences. In 2015 he was convicted in Portugal of possession of an assault weapon and in 2017 he was convicted of dangerous driving before being sentenced to 20 months in prison there in 2019 for theft.
Defense counsel Mr Raj Chopra said both men came from “sad backgrounds” and their families would suffer if they were imprisoned in the UK. He claimed that Danila had only come to the UK to visit friends but became involved in the thefts under the influence of drink.
At the time of the arrests, Insp Phil Marsh of Greater Manchester Police said: ‘We are urging the public to continue to help where possible by remaining vigilant and keeping their personal belongings safe.’