A Gem of a Theft: Fighting Jewelry Store Robberies

Jan. 2, 2006
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.)

From Boston to Baltimore

A man who was recently released from prison is alleged to have pulled a distraction theft at the Filene’s Basement in Boston. According to loss prevention and police sources, he came by the store one day to check out the jewelry counter, then returned the following day with a friend. While the accomplice distracted the salesperson, the thief reached into the open jewelry case and quickly took a $16,000 necklace.

The store’s camera system captured photos of the man entering the store and at the jewelry counter with his accomplice. Loss prevention personnel distributed the photos to other stores as well as to law enforcement. Local police identified the suspect; however, he had already moved on to New York, where he allegedly stole another $45,000 in jewelry in the Albany area.

The itinerant thief then moved down the coast, where he is believed to have targeted the Northeastern Fine Jewelry Shop outside Baltimore. The suspect allegedly entered the store to look at diamond rings, grabbed the jewelry and fled in a waiting car, which also turned out to be stolen.

Lt. Curtis Cox of the Guilderland (Md.) Police Dept. said that a link was discovered between the Boston and Baltimore thefts because of Filene’s Basement’s quick work.

“The Filene’s Basement in Boston passed the information about the theft to the security director of the store in Guilderland,” he said. “From there, we were able to link the suspect to the Northeastern Fine Jewelry Shop theft.”

The suspect is being held by police in Boston. The Guilderland police are waiting for their investigation to be finalized before arresting the man, whose name is being withheld.

East Coast Hot Spots

The Baltimore area experienced other jewelry thefts as well this holiday season. A team of two men was allegedly responsible for the robbery of J.M. Jewelers in Bel Air. They have also been charged, along with a third accomplice, with the robbery of Bromwell Jewelers in Lutherville, Md.

Corey Reuben Cooper and Brian O’Neal Hodge, both of Maryland, are charged with taking over three-quarters of a million dollars of jewelry and gems from J.M. Jewelers. They allegedly locked the store owner and a FedEx delivery person into the bathroom while committing the robbery. Neither the owner nor the delivery person was reported to have been seriously injured.

The two men, along with alleged accomplice Rodnell Shirley James, have been charged with the Bromwell Jewelers robbery as well.

According to PIO Robert B. Thomas of the Harford Co. (Md.) Sheriff’s Office, the suspects used handguns during the commission of these robberies. They then subsequently attempted to sell some of the jewelry at Baltimore pawnshops.

“We’ve recovered about $150,000 worth from the J.M. robbery,” said Thomas. “But we’re still looking for half a million dollars in missing jewelry.”

‘The Gate Cutters Crew’

The Baltimore area is not the only place plagued by jewelry thefts lately. Stores ranging from Zales Jewelry in Arnot Mall in the Elmira area of Upstate New York to Fink’s Jewelers in the Raleigh, N.C. area have also been victimized by an organized retail crime ring nicknamed the “Gate Cutters Jewelry Crew” because of the way the thieves enter the stores. This ring is believed to be comprised of Hispanic and/or African-American males who work in teams of four or five, with one person acting as a lookout.

The men hit when lighting conditions are low, usually before or after normal business hours, in order to make video identification more difficult. They typically enter and exit through fire exits at mall locations. They enter the stores by cutting through roll-down security gates, and they then pry open display cases and remove items that are not secured in a safe. The thieves spend very little time inside the stores, and they typically do not attempt to break into the safes.

The “Gate Cutters Jewelry Crew” is believe to have taken over $5.1 million in jewelry from more than 50 jewelry stores in 10 to 12 East Coast states. They primarily target national, mall-based stores and have victimized 16 companies.

In a rare show of interest in retail crime, the FBI is participating in the Gate Cutters Jewelry Task Force, which is comprised of federal, state and local law enforcement in partnership with the jewelry and gem industry.

FBI Criminal Investigative Division Assistant Director Chris Swecker says the danger from these acts isn’t solely loss of property.

“The potential danger to the public is clear,” said Swecker. “While we are concerned about the impact the dollar loss has on the American consumer, we’re even more concerned about the potential for violence. We’re determined to do everything possible to prevent a shopper, security guard, police officer or other innocent passerby from getting hurt.”

Tips regarding jewelry store burglaries that could be the work of the Gate Cutters Crew should be passed on to local law enforcement, the nearest FBI field office, or via the tip line at (800) CALL-FBI (800/225-5324).

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