Criminals Striking Traveling Gem Sellers

Jewelers' Security Alliance reports 117 robberies; criminals sometimes track victims with GPS

Crime was an occasional problem. In more than 10 years on the road, Menzie remembers being followed once, on a freeway in Alabama. He eluded the chase car and found refuge at a small town police station.

Gangs use GPS, databases

For reasons that aren't clear, Ecuadorean and Colombian gangs began to target sales reps, FBI agent McCaffrey says.

They use Mapquest, Global Positioning System devices, cellphones, and telephone and property databases to identify and follow sales reps. It's not unusual for 20 or more crewmembers using several cars to follow prospective "scores" for days or weeks, McCaffrey says.

Some of the thieves' favorite methods, says McCaffrey, who has interviewed captured robbers, include:

*Cutting brake lines or spiking tires on a sales rep's car, then trailing him until he breaks down.

*Breaking into the parked car while the salesman is having coffee.

*Surprising the sales rep as he leaves his motel or home.

The robberies, which have netted nearly $600 million since 1995, according to the JSA, are forcing changes in the industry. Manufacturers and wholesalers, beset with rising insurance premiums, increasingly are using large trade shows to reach retailers. Reps who continue to travel carry more product, to compensate for higher gas and hotel costs.

In a sure sign of the times, the Brotherhood of Traveling Salesmen disbanded about a year ago, Menzie notes. The group, which dated from the 1930s, was down to about 100 members and had few new applicants. Those who remained, Menzie says, decided to cash out the group's account and get a check now rather than wait for each other to die off.