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It’s the season of shopping — and stealing

Updated: 2013-12-06T13:13:46Z

By BRIAN BURNES

The Kansas City Star

After having lunch with his wife, Jeff Netzer handed his credit card to the waiter. But the charge was declined.

Puzzled, Netzer handed over another card. It wasn’t until after the Netzers had left the Yard House restaurant in the Legends shopping district and returned to their Lawrence home that Netzer’s wife, Stephanie, discovered her wallet missing from her purse.

Uh-oh. Then she remembered the stranger who’d spoken to her in the restaurant restroom.

“We’re 99 percent sure that’s when it happened,” Netzer said.

What “it” was, Netzer believes, was his family’s recent experience with “distraction theft,” which sometimes involves experienced thieves working in teams to distract shoppers and steal their wallets, purses or shopping bags.

Netzer thinks whoever took his wife’s wallet used a credit card several times before security measures kicked in, blocking further transactions — including the one the waiter attempted to run at the restaurant.

As holiday shoppers descend on restaurants, malls, shopping districts and grocery stores, so too are police watching for those who target them.

In November, Kansas City-area police officials and retail managers convened a holiday summit to trade information on theft trends. Several police departments now are increasing their presence at shopping districts. Olathe police will increase patrols of uniformed officers at the cluster of stores near 119th Street and Strang Line Road. Overland Park police are coordinating their annual undercover enforcement initiative at Oak Park Mall involving plainclothes personnel.

The mall generates around 20 percent of the city’s annual sales tax revenue, an income stream impacted by retail theft. But the holiday enforcement initiative is about more than money, said Byron Pierce, Overland Park detective.

“We want our constituents, both shoppers and retailers, to feel safe this time of year,” Pierce said.

“Unfortunately the holidays bring out people of not-so-good character, and theft crimes go up because of their increased access to potential victims.”

What Pierce and his colleagues call “distraction thefts” represent an elaborate version of retail-related robbery.

Videos of several variations can be found online, posted by law enforcement around the world to alert potential victims. To help prevent the thefts, police officers in Wokingham, in southeast England, recently handed out small bells that, when attached to purse straps, ring when jostled.

In such thefts, teams of veteran thieves work together, with one or more distracting a victim. Given that the thefts require stealth, nerve and coordination, authorities consider such incidents rare.

Netzer agreed — at least until the Olathe and Overland Park police departments, on the same day in early October, circulated photographs depicting three female suspects in two separate distraction thefts.

The details sounded familiar.

The Overland Park and Olathe distraction thefts occurred Sept. 22, when shoppers at separate grocery stores discovered wallets missing from their purses after strangers had engaged them in conversation.

Both victims later learned their credit cards had been used that day for unauthorized transactions. Credit cards taken in the Overland Park theft were used to run up more than $3,000 in purchases.

In both the Olathe and Overland Park cases, authorities identified the suspects as three women in their 20s.

Video from the Overland Park incident depicted the women entering a grocery store together. Two approached the victim while a third removed the victim’s wallet from the purse, according to police. The three left in the same car.

Days after his wife had her wallet stolen over Labor Day weekend, Netzer had talked to representatives of the Kansas City, Kan., police, Legends security and the Target store near the restaurant.

He described how, just before Stephanie had been approached by the stranger while preparing to wash her hands, she had flipped her unzipped purse up around her back, away from the sink.

After discovering Stephanie’s wallet missing, they brought their credit card account up online and noted three $500 purchases placed that day.

The Netzers’ experience mirrors those of many credit card theft victims in Overland Park, Pierce said.

“As soon as credit cards are stolen, thieves start using them immediately,” he said. “They know they have a short window because victims are going to call the 800 numbers to report their cards as stolen.”

A favorite use with stolen credit or debit cards? Buying retail store gift cards.

“Those cards are easy to fence,” said Pierce.

“They often will sell them for 50 cents on the dollar. The cards are already loaded with money and when the users swipe them, they probably are not going to get a ‘stolen’ or ‘decline transaction’ come up.”

There are less elaborate examples of distraction theft, Pierce added. That’s especially true during the holiday season, when shoppers may immerse themselves at a crowded sales display and put their purse or shopping bag down for just a moment.

“That’s all it takes,” Pierce said.

Often the thieves are professionals from outside the Kansas City area. “We call them ‘travelers,’” said Pierce, shorthand for “organized retail crime perpetrators.”

Sometimes such thieves are working as part of a larger criminal network. Several years ago, Pierce said, Overland Park police investigated a series of distraction cases in which an organized network of thieves stole credit cards and took them to the nearest big-box store.

“They would immediately go to Best Buy, buy high-end electronics and then ship them back to Burbank, Calif.,” Pierce said.

But many retail thefts seem to be more crimes of individual opportunity. About once a month in the last year, Olathe officers investigated thefts involving a shopper leaving a purse or wallet in a dressing room or grocery cart, or on a retail counter.

Authorities continue to pursue leads in the Overland Park and Olathe distraction thefts, but no arrests have been made. Netzer has yet to hear of an arrest in his wife’s case, either.

For all their elaborate strategies, thieves easily can be defeated by applying common sense, said Sgt. Bryan Hill of the Olathe Police Department.

Distraction theft cases often occur in grocery store settings, where shoppers sometimes place a purse in the elevated child seat of a shopping cart.

Hill’s advice includes leaving the purse at home and taking only the debit or credit cards needed.

“Don’t make your self a target,” said Hill. “Thieves will skip right over you.”

Netzer, meanwhile, considers the message received.

“Keep the purse zipped up and keep it underneath your arm,” he said.

Police advice for shoppers

• Leave purse at home and take only needed debit/credit cards into the store.

• Don’t place a purse in the elevated child seat of a shopping cart.

• Don’t place a purse or shopping bag on the floor at any time.

• Copy down credit card numbers and keep the information at home, along with toll-free numbers to call in case cards are stolen.

To reach Brian Burnes, call 816-234-4120 or send email to bburnes@kcstar.com.

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