A Gem of a Theft: Fighting Jewelry Store Robberies

From distraction thefts to recent “gate-cutting” incidents, a look at the newest tactics to stand guard against


The holiday season is a bonanza for thieves who target retail operations. In late 2005, jewelry stores, which are perennial targets, were especially favored by the bad guys. The situation was so severe that the FBI stepped in – it was one of the few times the agency has bothered to get involved with retail crime, an area of crime that is normally left to local police forces.

Among the scads of jewelry stores and department store fine jewelry counters that sported bulls-eyes were the Boston Filene’s Basement, which was hit by the same man who then targeted a store in Albany, N.Y., followed by the Northeastern Fine Jewelry Shop in Guilderland, Md., near Baltimore. The Baltimore area was also plagued by robberies at J.M. Jewelers in Bel Air and Bromwell Jewelers in Lutherville.

’Twas the Season

The holiday season signals an increase in retail jewelry thefts simply because the target of opportunity expands during the fourth quarter. People begin their holiday gift shopping then, and many look for fine jewelry. In response to an increased sales opportunity, jewelry merchants show more stock. The larger selection translates into a juicier opportunity for thieves.

Predictable Patterns

Jewelry thefts occur in several predictable ways:

  • Distraction thefts: Although personnel who work with jewelry are usually well trained, they can become complacent or overworked, just like clerks working with any other type of merchandise. Thieve capitalize on increased holiday traffic to pull a switcheroo. When the salesperson shows a valuable piece, the thief, usually in conjunction with a partner, distracts the employee’s attention and replaces the legitimate jewelry with a fake, then takes off with the good stuff.
    Distraction thefts have also been known to take advantage of cabinets temporarily left open while store personnel show a piece to another customer (or the thief’s accomplice!). Jewelry associates are trained to show the pieces draped on their own hands and to limit the number of items removed from the case at one time, rather than handing over a fistful of gems at once, but they get rushed/complacent, and can inadvertently leave the figurative door open to theives.
  • Return thefts: The thief buys a piece of fine jewelry, then comes back the next day to “return” the goods for a refund. What they’re giving the store is not the same merchandise they purchased, however--it’s an imitation with hardly any value. Although jewelry employees generally verify the authenticity of returned goods, some fakes have been known to slip past them.
  • Renting: It sounds innocuous, but it adds up to millions in lost revenue each year. A customer comes in one day, makes a purchase, and returns the item the following day. In the case of jewelry, they bring back the same item they bought, but they’ve worn it in the interim, thus depriving the store of legitimate profit. During the holidays, when so many celebrations are held, people want others to see their finery, even if it’s borrowed just for the evening.
    Customers, of course, do sometimes legitimately change their minds and want to return jewelry the day after they buy it. To avoid offending good customers, stores generally give them the benefit of the doubt the first--or second--time. After that, it’s time to cut the “party line” they’ve established that gets them free jewelry for festivities.
  • Smash-and-grabs: Some crude thefts are pulled off by smashing in the front of the store with a vehicle, grabbing the goods, and taking off. A crime of this caliber usually requires some desperation on the part of the thief. In the old days, however, some crooks would pull smash-and-grabs in a bit more sophisticated manner. They would cut the phone lines to disable the alarm, then force the vehicle inside. The alarm companies would register the phone line tampering only as a line that is out of service, giving them time to get away before anyone came to investigate. Even today, the lag between the time the alarm is tripped and the time the thieves grab what they can and exit is usually enough to allow them to carry off some loot.
  • Gate-cutting: There is a group of jewelry thieves who specialize in cutting store security gates, smashing the windows, grabbing jewelry and getting out. They have burglarized over 50 jewelry stores in 10 or 12 East Coast states. (Read on for more information about this group’s tactices.)
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