Chinese thieves get five years for $682,000 Monaco ring scam

PARIS - A French court on Wednesday handed three Chinese thieves five-year jail terms for stealing a ring worth nearly half a million euros from a Monaco jewellery store and replacing it with a fake.

The theft took place in January 2014.

Two men entered the Fred jewellery store and asked to be shown two rings, while a third man waited outside. Setting their sights on a model with a 453,000-euro (S$681,991) price tag the pair paid a deposit of 500 euros and said they would be back by closing time with the balance. They never returned.

Instead, the next day, on opening the gift-wrapped box that the saleswoman had prepared, the manager discovered that the ring in the case had been replaced with a cheap replica.

The thieves had, it turned out, taken advantage of the saleswoman's back being turned to pocket the original. The ring was never found.

Two days later, the trio were detained in Paris after being seen poring over rings worth 300,000 euros and more at the city's glitzy Galeries Lafayette department store.

In the police car that was taking them to the station for questioning they handed over two rings that had a strong resemblance to the jewels they had been viewing minutes earlier, together with two stones.

A search of their Paris hotel room turned up other stones that looked like cut diamonds but which were, in fact, lumps of zirconium oxide.

While they were in pre-trial custody, one of the suspects' cellmates told investigators his fellow prisoner was part of a criminal gang with interests in illegal gambling and prostitution in China. The stolen rings, the informer claimed, were sold in the Chinese gambling hub of Macau.

Aside from their five-year sentences for theft and criminal conspiracy, the Paris criminal court fined each of the men 15,000 euros and barred them from the greater Paris area and Monaco for five years.

They were also ordered to fully compensate the Fred jewellery store -- whose luxury creations have been worn by members of the Monaco royal family.

The tiny principality of Monaco is bordered by France on three sides. Its legal system is closely related to that of its neighbour.