I robbed a string of banks unarmed by posing as a journalist in a GTA 5 roleplaying server

"I'm unarmed. I'm a journalist, and I'm here to report on the robbery. Look, see my van? I was tipped off. The guy you want is in the back. Don't shoot." 

This was the spiel I used it to steal over $50,000 from a chain of Los Santos banks, shops and jewelry stores. Without confrontation, I tricked GTA 5 law enforcement roleplayers by preying on assumption and sincerity in the guise of a reporter. I didn't even care about the money—I was hooked on the lie, the scheme and the thrill of getting caught. When I eventually did get rumbled the spell was broken. But what a rush it was before then.  

Los Santos Life RP is a dedicated roleplaying server within FiveM, a 32-person open source community modification for Grand Theft Auto 5. Designed to allow mods on the server/client side of operation, FiveM works independently of Rockstar's GTA Online besides validating the player's copy of the game prior to launch. In Los Santos Life, cash reflects reality, therefore my haul was probably akin to a few million GTA$ as it features in GTA 5 and its online component.

Starting out in LS Life is daunting. You're skint, with no obvious means of earning money. Beyond some loose rules found on the server's forums, players are encouraged to learn the world via voice conversations with others, or by way of the server's Lifeinvader (the base game's slant on real world social media) UI chat stream. 

Upon arrival, I discovered I could change my generic white t-shirt/blue jeans-wearing avatar free-of-charge, and so set off on foot to the nearest clothes store. En route, though, I spotted another player assaulting an NPC pedestrian and intervened with force. In doing so, I failed to notice the squad car circling at my back. Tires screeched, lights flashed and sirens wailed as the cruiser pulled up alongside us. I was cuffed, read my Miranda rights and escorted to jail. With no roleplaying lawyers online—or so I was told—I was convicted of assault and sentenced to ten months in the slammer without trial. Talk about a baptism of fire.  

I dusted myself off as the two cops made off with my taxi. Fuck you! I screamed into my mic, before realising it was 11.30pm in the real world and my downstairs neighbour was probably asleep.

Luckily LS Life's judicial system measures months in minutes—but 600 seconds with nowhere to go nonetheless felt like a long time. Worse still, other inmates travelled the length of the prison's courtyard to throw punches and/or shout expletives at me, and it quickly became clear Bolingbroke Penitentiary was a spot best avoided from thereon. 

With this in mind, I emerged a new man and set off in pursuit of an honest living. I visited the server's job centre—located at 3 Alta Street, a purchasable heist apartment in GTA Online—and became a taxi driver. My wage was a meager $30 per in-game day, plus whatever I charged roleplayers for my on-call service. It took time, but I eventually earned enough dough to buy my own car and despite being regaled with tales of drug dealing, money laundering and bank robbery from the backseat of my cab, I remained committed to my puritanical lifestyle.       

I stuck to crosswalks on foot, I yielded to pedestrians when driving; I bit my tongue and sidestepped provocation from other players, I alerted the authorities to crimes witnessed during my shifts. In essence, I became a model Los Santos citizen.

One evening, while transporting another roleplayer from Blaine County to the city, I passed through a set of traffic lights. A squad car pulled me over, and an officer and his cadet asked that I exit my vehicle. "I think you ran a red light there, sir," the officer in charge posited, as he ran the plates on my taxi. I politely contested. My hire paid for his ride to this point, thanked me, and left on foot.    

"Excuse me?" asked the junior. My hire was now out of earshot. "You ran the fucking light," said the lead officer, his tone now aggressive. Before I could reply, I was tasered. The pair laughed, almost hysterically. I was tasered again. And again. And again. "We'll let you off with a warning this time, asshole… but we're taking your car to the station as evidence."

Evidence of what? Institutional corruption? I dusted myself off as the two enforcers made off with my cab. Fuck you! I screamed into my mic, before realising it was 11.30pm in the real world and my downstairs neighbour was probably asleep. 

Prior to playing FiveM, I hadn't seen Dan Gilroy's 2014 thriller Nightcrawler (Samuel reckoned my antics sort of reflected its plot). As such, I thought this next part was genius. And, having since watched it, my tactics weren't absolutely like-for-like, so I'm still proud of how it all unfolded.

So, fuck the LSPD, right? After all that, after playing by the rules and having the utmost respect for authority, I wound up getting screwed over anyway. Payback time, I reckoned. But how? 

During my time as a cabbie, I learned that banks, jewelry stores and liquor shops can be robbed in Los Santos Life by equipping yourself with a weapon, and counting down a timer before dealing with the authorities. If the clock expires, the money is yours, however I'd once witnessed a bandit making off with $10K from the Legion Square branch of Fleeca Bank, only to be gunned down in cold blood just metres from its entrance. Once the cops get you, they can of course confiscate dirty money. 

This wasn't going to be straightforward. And if I was to successfully stick it to The Man I needed a decoy.

I returned to the job centre and signed on as a journalist. I visited the Weazel News HQ and was given a company van with the station's logo emblazoned on the side. I popped into Ammu-Nation and purchased a switchblade—a tool I'd use to initiate each operation, but had no intention of using. I wanted to embarrass the LSPD, but had no desire to fight them head on. That was a battle I wouldn't win.

And so I started out small by hitting Blaine County's Yellow Jack Inn. I parked my ride out on the main drag, and positioned my Weazel News van in the car park out front. I whipped out my knife, started the timer, put it back in my pocket, and waited. My stomach hit the roof. I rehearsed my lines over and over and over again. I glanced at the clock, paced around the interior of the bar, and peered out the dusty window at the highway on the opposite side of the glass. With just 24 seconds to go, one solitary officer pulled up outside. 

"I'm unarmed," I said. I paused, and took a deep breath. It's all or nothing now, I thought to myself. I continued: "I'm a journalist, and I'm here to report on the robbery. Look, see my van? I was tipped off. The guy you want is in the back. Don't shoot."

And while I was in fact referring to the back of the bar itself, my miscommunication saw the officer advising me not to panic and informing me he'd check the rear of the premises before making sure I was okay. The timer ran down. Several thousand dollars appeared in my account. This was my chance. 

I hightailed it out of the door and over to my car, laughing as I went. I floored it, and careered over sandswept back roads to a city clothes store with my radio switched off and my breath held. After changing up my look, I was in the clear. In reality I'd inadvertently risen to my feet, and was hopping from side to side as I lurched over my monitor. My plan had worked. It felt fantastic.

I then hit multiple convenience stores across San Andreas, before graduating to its banks and jewelry boutiques using the same trick. 

"I'm unarmed. I'm a journalist, and I'm here to report on the robbery. Look, see my van? I was tipped off. The guy you want is in the back. Don't shoot."

When I eventually worked up the nerve to take on the aforementioned Legion Square Fleeca Bank branch, I watched two coppers spend over two minutes shouting orders at an imaginary robber before walking straight past me into the building's backroom vault. By the time I heard them cursing their stupidity, I was already in the front seat of my getaway car.  

I netted just over $10,000 from that non-confrontational heist alone—and while players are identified in LS Life by floating profile numbers (which can be seen through walls), my stall tactics and deception had caused this pair to overlook the culprit stood right in front of their eyes. 

When I finally got caught, one particularly relentless roleplaying authoritarian set her canine unit on me. After some back and forth I slipped up and felt the full force of the law. "I don't believe you, pal," she scoffed. "Do you think I'm fucking stupid?" 

What happened next was like that scene from Catch Me If You Can where Tom Hanks' Carl Hanratty tracks down Leo DiCaprio's Frank Abagnale Jr. in a hotel room. Only instead of getting away, I wound up incapacitated on the floor with more holes in me than a tea bag, and a dog chewing on my testicles.  

Am I sociopath? Despite the thrill of pulling off my plan time and time again, committing these virtual crimes while talking to real life people—albeit in roleplay—did make me question my morality. Doing so was some of the most fun I've ever had while playing a videogame, however should I read into the fact that lying to and tricking folk for fake financial gain turned me on and came so naturally to me? 

Probably. Perhaps I'll worry about that the next time I'm washing sack-loads of in-game dirty money and pondering how to spend it. Maybe I'll even clean up my act and join the server's police force—a group who hold real life interviews and enforce in-game probation periods. There's definitely a story or two to be told from the inside. Now, should I roleplay Johnny Law or Donnie Brasco? Watch this space.