A conman – whose victims included businesses in Totnes, Kingsbridge and Ivybridge – has been jailed after he plagued shops with a scam known as ‘ringing the changes’.
Out of the 38 times that the gang struck across Devon and Cornwall the only victim who got his money back was a barman at the Royal Seven Stars Hotel in Totnes who realised he had been short changed and tracked down the men to the nearby Totnes Grill, where they refunded him from a bulging roll of banknotes.
Beni Burcea was the leader of the gang targeting small shops and pubs and used sleight of hand to rip off unsuspecting workers.
He would buy a small value item and then ask to change £10 notes into £20 notes. He pretended to change his mind and ask for 20p pieces and when the transaction was cancelled, he gave back less money than he had been given.
He used his strong Romanian accent as a way of confusing staff, who were left baffled by his antics and only realised they had been swindled when they cashed up the till.
One Tesco Metro worker received a written warning after falling for the scam and a shop assistant in Falmouth was forced to make up the £100 shortfall from his own pocket.
Burcea worked with up to three other men who helped to distract and fluster the victims and sometimes shoplifted at the same time.
The 38 offences forced the police to issue warnings to shopkeepers, which led some to refuse to change money, but the gang rarely left empty handed because they stole goods or mobile phones amid the confusion.
The typical loss was £100 or £200 but the total added up to £3,815, including rings and bracelets stolen from jewellers in Sidmouth and Okehampton.
The gang also struck at Kingsbridge, Horrabridge, Plymstock, Plymouth, Ivybridge, Honiton, Totnes, Torbay, Saltash, St Austell, Redruth, Falmouth, Camborne, Hayle and Newquay.
They were caught because of quick thinking by shopkeepers and customers, including one who filmed Burcea on his mobile and followed him out to get his car’s registration.
Burcea, 25, of Highfield Road, Birmingham, admitted conspiracy to steal. Police are still hunting three other men, one of whom is thought to have left the country.
He was jailed for 15 months by Assistant Judge Advocate General Alistair McGregor at Exeter Crown Court.
The judge told him: “You knew that the way you operated made it extremely difficult and time consuming for the police to catch up with you. You operated over a wide area using different vehicles.
“The comparatively small sums of money don’t give any indication of the financial damage, frustration and upset you caused to many small businesses which survive on small margins.
“Individual members of staff have been damaged. One received a final warning, another had to reimburse the loss, and all were left perplexed or distressed.
“This was premeditated, planned and sophisticated. The scamming behaviour appears to have evolved as you grew more confident and successful.
“When you are in prison you should reflect that you are a young, fit and healthy young man who would be better off in the future doing an honest day’s work.”
Janice Eagles, prosecuting, said Burcea played a leading role in the group who made six weekend trips from the Midlands to Devon and Cornwall in 2013 to 2014.
She said Burcea appears in many of the 30 pieces of CCTV recovered from the shops and pubs either as the man changing the money or one of those causing a distraction.
The method is known as ‘ringing the changes’ by police. There were 20 deceptions, eight unsuccessful attempts, seven shopliftings and four other thefts.
She said: ”A lot of witnesses refer to Burcea speaking English with quite a strong accent which made him difficult to understand and he played on that to create confusion in the victims.
“The general reaction is for them to feel disturbed and unsure about what had just happened. The main way of stealing money was to confuse often hard-pressed shop or bar staff by sleight of hand.
“Most of the victims were only trying to help. At least two members of staff found their jobs were put at risk because they were blamed for the loss of money.”
Kevin Hopper, defending, said Burcea was not the leader of the group but played a similar role to the others. He had admitted his involvement at an early stage.