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Hunting for the real Pink Panther diamond thieves

Incredible heists carried out in some of the most opulent cities in the world. Millions of dollars worth of diamonds stolen in just minutes. The thieves—virtually untouchable and vanishing without a trace.

That, according to federal investigators, is the world of the network of criminals dubbed the Pink Panthers. The gang is suspected of pulling off some of the most brazen diamond heists in history. More than $100 million worth of diamonds was stolen in just the past month.

The Pink Panther methods are daring and quick. In July, a lone thief walked into a diamond exhibition at a luxury hotel in Cannes. In just 60 seconds, investigators say, he walked out with $138 million worth of jewels. The heist was carried out during the day, and, incredibly, the robber fell down when he jumped out of a hotel window but still managed to hold on to the loot and escape.

The wild move happened in the same hotel featured in Alfred Hitchcock's film "To Catch a Thief."

Days later, a jewelry store on the French Riviera was targeted. Investigators believe it could be the work of the Pink Panthers.

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FBI Special Agent Dan McCaffrey is a diamond expert and tracks Pink Panther heists around the world. He said some of the diamonds taken in the Cannes caper are extremely rare and valuable. More than 20 jewels were 30 carats.

McCaffrey said the Pink Panthers are known for attention to detail and planning every step of the job—including how they will unload the stolen goods. He added that their goal is to get rid of diamonds as quickly as possible, and in past Pink Panther thefts, FBI agents have recovered stolen diamonds in the United States just days after they were lifted from jewelry stores in Europe.

The Carlton Intercontinental Hotel in Cannes, France, site of the recent jewelry theft.
The Carlton Intercontinental Hotel in Cannes, France, site of the recent jewelry theft.

According to McCaffrey, the resale diamond business is huge, and New York City is the epicenter for the diamond trade. There are more wholesalers and retailers on 47th Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues than anywhere else in the country—with billions of dollars flowing through the area at any given moment. He said many stolen diamonds have surfaced in New York—some of which are sold to unknowing customers.

The international network of thieves got the name Pink Panthers from police, after the diamond in the film comedies starring Peter Sellers.

But investigators say the glamour romanticized in film is very far from reality.

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McCaffrey describes the Pink Panthers as violent criminals who target people and hurt them very badly.

When members are caught, he said, agents are always shocked to see how tawdry their lives really are. Many live in small apartments without contact with families, don't own cars and are always on the run from authorities. They know that if they are taken into custody they could end up spending a very long life in a dark cell.

Jeff Pohlman is a senior producer at CNBC. Andrea Day is a reporter at CNBC, covering crime and punishment.