They did not look like your usual armed robbers. What appeared to be three Caucasian police officers, guns drawn, entered the Pay-O-Matic check-cashing store on South Conduit Avenue in Queens, New York on Valentine’s Day 2012. The men wore jackets embroidered with the insignia of the NYPD and had authentic-looking detective shields hanging around their necks. While two of the cops guarded the door, the third approached a clerk and showed her a photo of her home, saying, “We know where you live.” He then pointed his gun at the clerk and told her to clear out the cash drawer and also a safe.

Another person who was working at the check-cashing store that day remembers it well. “We were terrified,” says the employee, who prefers to remain nameless. “They looked and sounded like police officers. They had guns. We gave them what they wanted.”

The men backed out of the store and drove off in a dark-colored Ford Explorer, absconding with nearly $200,000 in cash.

When investigators arrived on the scene, they were stumped. Would three cops really have the cojones to rob a busy check-cashing store on a bustling New York street in broad daylight?

For weeks, the criminal investigation went nowhere. But after surveillance footage of the robbery was shown on the news, investigators received a tip: The criminals appeared to be wearing high-end specialty masks. It seemed like a long shot, but something about the men’s bald heads and generic features made the possibility that they were wearing disguises worth checking out.

Bingo. At CFX Composite Effects, a specialty store in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, cops were given the name of a Queens man, Edward Byam, who had purchased three lifelike silicone masks. The kicker, authorities say, was that weeks after his purchase—and a few days after the robbery—Byam e-mailed the store: “I’m sending this message to say I’m extremely pleased by CFX work on the mask. The realism of the mask is unbelievable.” It was through this polite thank-you note that cops were able to track down and arrest Byam, as well as two alleged accomplices, Akeem Monsalvatge and Derrick Dunkley.

All three of the accused robbers are African American. They face charges of armed robbery and impersonating a police officer.

The use of a disguise or mask in the furtherance of a crime is not new. Since the dawn of armed robbery, bandits have used masks of every variety. What is new—and what has law enforcement agents and cops around the country concerned—is the quality of these new high-tech masks, the ease with which they can be purchased online and the ways they are being used.

The Queens bandits didn’t just disguise their identities, they transformed their ethnicities. This robbery, and a handful of others in the U.S. and elsewhere, suggests that criminals are on the verge of taking a technique near and dear to lawmen—racial profiling—and turning it on its head.

The art of deception and armed robbery have gone hand-in-hand for at least three centuries. The infamous Dick Turpin, a highwayman who robbed travelers in 18th century England, was known to wear a simple costume mask that covered his eyes. For years, Turpin and his Essex Gang blazed a trail across England, stealing horses, deer and valuables. The highwaymen became so well-known, they were romanticized in British ballads and numerous theatrical presentations and later became fixtures in popular culture through movies and television.

Over the years, the use of masks and disguises to commit armed robbery has evolved along with new trends and advancements in technology. In 1873, in their first known train robbery in Iowa, Jesse James and his gang wore Ku Klux Klan hoods, both to conceal their identities and to make a political statement. (James was an avowed Confederate sympathizer.) By the 20th century, balaclavas—knit ski masks that can be pulled over the entire head—became the disguise of choice for bank robbers and thieves.

The most notorious use of Halloween-style rubber masks was in the 1950 Brink’s robbery in Boston, known for decades as “the crime of the century.” A group of men managed to break into a Brink’s warehouse and steal nearly $3 million in cash, checks and securities. It would be years before authorities solved the crime, partly because the robbers were so well disguised: One of them wore a mask of Captain Marvel, a popular comic-book superhero of the day.

In more recent decades, with the invention of foam latex and later silicone technologies, armed robberies have been carried out by criminals wearing gorilla, clown and devil masks, as well as masks of famous people such as Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley. Sometimes criminals are inspired by popular culture. After the movie Point Break showed a gang of robbers conducting a bank heist disguised as U.S. presidents, it touched off a trend of crooks wearing Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan masks. Some authorities believe the current masked criminals are partly inspired by the Mission: Impossible TV series and movies, in which characters use masks as sheer as human skin to transpose their race and even their gender.

In real life, robbers wear masks to conceal their identities and, in some cases, to disorient clerks, customers and onlookers as a crime is under way. Altering their ethnicities with silicone masks that fit tightly over the entire head and extend to midchest is something new. The remarkable quality of these masks not only obscures a criminal’s identity but has the added benefit of sending investigators off on a wild-goose chase. Security cameras and eyewitnesses reveal the robbers to be white, or black, when in fact they are something else entirely.

“So much of what initiates an investigation is based on the racial description of the perpetrator: black, white, Asian or Hispanic,” says a veteran agent with the ATF, the federal agency that handles most armed robbery cases. “If an investigation heads off in the entirely wrong direction, it can make it difficult to get back on track.” The agent agreed to speak with Playboy only if his name was not used. Officially, spokespeople for both the ATF and the FBI declined to comment, saying they did not want to call attention to these new high-tech masks, out of concern that they might inspire copycats.

In fact, the alleged robbers in Queens may have gotten the idea from another case of a black criminal who committed crimes while disguised as a white person. In London, career armed robber Henley Stephenson went on a crime spree using a latex mask advertised as “Mac the Guy,” a bald-headed white male. Upon Stephenson’s arrest in a 2011 ambush, Detective Chief Inspector Harry Hennigan of the Finchley Flying Squad said, “Stephenson executed these crimes in a calculated and frightening manner with no regard for innocent members of the public. His measures were so extreme, he tried to deceive the police by concealing his identity by wearing a lifelike latex mask that completely altered his skin color and appearance. Stephenson also fired a gun in front of terrified members of the public, who scrambled for cover during a betting shop robbery.”

Stephenson’s exploits as Mac the Guy were lavishly covered in the U.K. media, and his methods could easily be researched on the internet. The crime for which he was eventually caught—the robbery of a security guard transporting a cash box carrying about $30,000—was believed to be only one of many he carried out while wearing a mask. In June 2012 Stephenson was sentenced to 14 years in prison for 19 counts of robbery and five counts of possessing a firearm. Most of his robberies, of betting shops and department stores, had until then gone unsolved, with eyewitnesses describing the robber as a white male and security footage seemingly backing up that description.

Though the media describe many of these masks as being made of latex, in fact the really good ones are usually made of silicone. “There’s a translucency with silicone that is hyperrealistic,” says Rusty Slusser, owner of SPFX Masks, a renowned mask-manufacturing company in Burbank, California. “The silicone masks are able to move with the face and mimic human expressions such as smiles or the raising of an eyebrow. When enhanced with hairpieces or additional makeup and under the right lighting conditions, they are virtually undetectable.”

A former Hollywood makeup artist, Slusser takes great pride in the quality of his masks. His six-person manufacturing crew uses silicone that feels and looks like flesh, down to the pores. Real human hair is used, with each strand sewn individually onto the surface of the mask. Artists paint the masks to create a variety of skin tones.

“This is a handcrafted product,” says Slusser. “There’s no way you can mass-produce a mask of this quality. Whether it’s a vampire, a zombie or the Thug—a mask we invented—a tremendous amount of artistry goes into each one.” Slusser’s masks have been used in numerous Hollywood productions, including the movie Drive, in which lead actor Ryan Gosling wears a mask called “the Handsome Guy” while committing murder.

The use of SPFX Masks’ products came under scrutiny in 2010 when a white man named Conrad Zdzierak was arrested for a series of robberies in Springdale, Ohio. A 30-year-old Polish immigrant, Zdzierak had disguised himself as a black man with a mask purchased from SPFX Masks via the internet. At the time, the mask was advertised on the company website as “the Player” and sold for $650. Says Slusser, “We don’t condone the use of our product for criminal purposes. In fact, it makes us sick to think that something we create so that people can have fun is used to break the law.”

Zdzierak had cleverly augmented his Player mask with wraparound sunglasses and a hoodie. His disguise was so effective that, following a bank robbery, six different tellers identified an African American male as the culprit from a photo lineup. A black man was wrongfully arrested and held in custody. Had the case gone to trial, the man may well have been convicted. Said a Springdale detective involved in the investigation, “We showed the picture [of the accused robber] to his own mother, and she thought it was him.”

Justice was served when Zdzierak’s girlfriend discovered two masks and cash in his possession, and tipped off the police. Detectives approached a hotel where the suspect was living and were alarmed to see the interior of his Volvo partially splattered with red dye, the kind normally used in explosive packets placed in bags of stolen cash. The detectives called in an apprehension squad, who raided the suspect’s hotel room and placed him under arrest. Police found a pair of masks in Zdzierak’s safe—one of the Player and another of an old white man called “the Elder.”

A search of the robber’s computer revealed a series of e-mails he’d sent to Slusser at SPFX Masks, claiming he was a movie producer who wanted to know how the African American mask would look on a white man and whether the matching hands would hold up in a fight. In addition, cops found a homemade video of Zdzierak modeling the old-man mask and practicing speaking like an elderly person.

When Zdzierak was arraigned, Hamilton County judge Melissa Powers told him, “You are the type of villain we read about in novels and see in the movies.” In November 2010 Zdzierak pleaded guilty to five counts of robbery and one count of aggravated robbery.

The possibility that a criminal might transform not only his race but also his age is an added area of concern for authorities. It has caused some in law enforcement to reassess open cases. One notorious case that has been cast in a new light is that of the so-called Geezer Bandit, a white man in his 60s who has committed 16 armed robberies in central and southern California. The robber’s modus operandi is to enter a bank, usually wearing a blazer and glasses, and often carrying his gun in a day planner. One teller who had direct contact with the serial robber said he pointed his gun at her and handed her a note that read, “Give me $50,000 or I will murder you.”

The Geezer Bandit has been profiled on America’s Most Wanted, and almost a dozen Facebook pages are devoted to his exploits. Whether he is an old man or a younger person disguised as an old man doesn’t seem to matter; his exploits have attracted a following, with one “fan” on Facebook writing, “It’s going to be hilarious if this guy ever gets caught! LOL.”

To people in law enforcement, the likelihood that the Geezer Bandit is a younger person wearing a mask is no laughing matter. The possibilities are ominous.

Three years ago, around the time Conrad Zdzierak pleaded guilty to his crime spree in Ohio, a person who appeared to be an elderly Caucasian man boarded a plane in Hong Kong, bound for Vancouver. Sometime during the flight, the passenger entered the plane’s restroom and emerged as a young Asian man. The ruse was detected, and the man was detained in Vancouver, where he admitted he had worn a mask and boarded the plane under an assumed identity. The 20-something claimed he was seeking political asylum in Canada.

The incident set off alarm bells within the world of international security. This kid had been harmless, but others might not be. If a young Chinese man could easily pass through security disguised as an old white man, what manner of deception might more hardened criminals, even terrorists, be able to pull off?

“The implications are disturbing,” says the veteran ATF agent. “We better get up to speed at detecting these masks. Imagine if Al Qaeda or some similar organization were to get their hands on them.”

For professional armed robbers who plied their trade before the era of silicone masks, the new technology may prove to be an irresistible temptation. Consider the case of Steven Ray Milam. In early 2011, Milam, then 43 years old, was a successful casket salesman living in Richardson, Texas, 15 miles north of Dallas. After serving two years in prison for two Dallas bank robberies he committed in 2005, Milam had seemingly turned his life around. But then he heard about these new high-quality silicone masks and concluded it was time to get back in the game.

Beginning in April 2011, Milam began a robbery spree that caught the attention of lawmen throughout the state of Texas. Over the course of eight months, Milam robbed 11 banks in and around Dallas and Houston, using the same style of mask Ryan Gosling wears in Drive—the Handsome Guy. In Milam’s case, authorities suspected early on that he was wearing a mask. He had not augmented the disguise with facial hair, a hood or a cap. He was content to simply hide his identity, and he soon became known throughout Texas law enforcement and the media as the Handsome Guy Bandit.

On New Year’s Eve 2011, Milam entered the BBVA Compass bank at 1401 East Campbell Road in Richardson, not far from his home. This time he had ginned up his disguise. Along with the Handsome Guy mask, he wore black frame glasses, a baseball cap, a blue tracksuit and latex gloves, and he was carrying a black semiautomatic handgun. He pointed the gun at the bank manager, forced the employees into a large vault and ordered them to put $100, $50 and $20 bills into a clear plastic bag he’d brought with him. “No dye packs or trackers,” he told a teller. “I’ll kill you if you put them in the bag.”

After he loaded the bag with cash, he forced the employees into a bathroom and said, “Count to 500. If any of you come out before then, I’ll shoot you dead. And don’t contact any police. I’ll be listening on a police scanner.”

Milam then fled. Almost immediately, he encountered a squad car arriving outside the bank. Before the cop could even get out of the car, Milam took aim and opened fire. He blew out the windshield, sending glass raining down on the cop, and shot up the side of the squad car. No one was hit. He then ran to his house, discarding his mask, gun, clothing and even some money along the way. At home he packed clothes, hopped in his car and headed to Austin, where he spent the night.

The next morning he set out for Florida, but he didn’t make it. Deputies in Mississippi ran a check on his license plate number and discovered he was a wanted man. When they tried to pull him over, Milam sped up and took the cops on a high-speed chase until one of the officers shot out a back tire. After his car came to a halt, Milam allegedly tried to swallow a handful of pills. The officers arrested him, then took him to a hospital to have his stomach pumped.

At his sentencing in October 2012, a judge told Milam, “[For] most people that fire on police officers, the outcome is not too good. Some people would say you’re lucky. It’s a wonder you’re not dead now.”

Milam threw himself on the mercy of the court and admitted his guilt. He said that through his life as a mask-wearing robber he had lost his own identity and felt he had “to win an Oscar” every day to avoid detection. The judge sentenced him to 35 years in prison.

For Milam, the disguise had become essential not only to his crime but to his criminal identity. Like others who use high-quality silicone masks to cross lines of race and age to fool the public and line their pockets with cash, the Handsome Guy Bandit had become a practitioner of armed robbery as a form of performance art.