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Human locks, valued for realistic hairstyles, targeted by thieves

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It's dyeable. It's bleachable. And it's highly sought after by thieves targeting shops in the Baltimore area and around the country.

Unprocessed human hair— prized for providing women with long, flowing, natural-looking locks — has been swiped from half a dozen area beauty supply stores. The high-end hair, often sewn or glued in place to add length or volume, costs nearly $200 a bundle.

Such steep prices have made the fashionable locks desirable among thieves, much like Nike Air Jordan Concords and Helly Hansen jackets. And stylists say the same products they sell in stores are being hawked on the black market.

"Now you are finding hair being sold on the street, being sold out of cars," said Tiki Spruill, a master stylist at About Faces Day Spa and Salon in Canton. The sellers "are street hustlers like you would see with watches or purses."

Police nationwide have reported a string of thefts and robberies in which the suspects were after hair — and not synthetic hair, which costs far less.

In Chicago, a woman pepper-sprayed a store clerk this month before making off with nearly $230,000 worth of hair, and similar thefts have been reported in West Palm Beach, Fla., Atlanta and Houston. In Michigan, a store owner was fatally shot two years ago during a robbery in which someone stole hair, according to news reports.

Much of the unprocessed human hair comes from countries such as India, China and Brazil, where people sell or donate hair for charity or religious purposes and buyers ship it around the world.

At the Beauty Supply shop on Reisterstown Road, a masked intruder broke a glass door last month and made off with dozens of packages of long, dark hair. The incident was caught on camera, but police have not identified a suspect. It was one in a series of incidents in April and May.

"They drive around and sell it on the street," said employee Larry Lawrence as he scrolled through photos of the aftermath on his cellphone. In one image, shards of glass covered the front entrance. Another showed a large brick from a construction site lying on the shop floor.

After the May 2 burglary, he said, the store installed metal bars over the front windows for security. They have also shifted the selection of "Unprocessed Brazilian Hair" to a spot lower on the wall where it's less visible from the counter.

At the Beauty Island shop just a few blocks south on Reisterstown Road, employees also said a large brick had been chucked through the front door, shattering the glass.

Only the most expensive hair was missing. The store, which sells all sorts of beauty products, including wigs and synthetic hair, was otherwise left untouched.

Targeted was the "True Brazilian Virgin Remy," which employees say costs as much as $179.99 a pack for the longest styles. A customer might purchase several packages, depending on the desired look.

"That was so surprising. We never thought someone would do this," said employee Tapaswi Rajbhandari.

The store has surveillance video of the break-in, but employees said the robber's features were hidden by a sweatshirt and mask.

Police in Baltimore and Howard counties have received reports of stolen hair valued at more than $20,000.

Baltimore County police spokeswoman Cpl. Cathy Batton said detectives are still compiling information on the suspect or suspects in the Reisterstown Road incidents, but said police were "investigating them as connected burglaries."

Unlike other expensive merchandise, she said the hair does not have serial numbers and can be hard to trace.

"We have never had a trend like this before in Baltimore County," she said.

Howard County police reported a similar burglary at the Long Reach Beauty Supply on Cloudleap Court in Columbia, where police said a suspect also broke the glass front door and stole hair pieces.

Stylists said the crime trend does not surprise them, given the popularity of sleek, shiny hairdos and the investments clients make.

Higher-end salons charge from $750 to $1,500 for a weave. Salons that permit clients to bring their own hair still charge around $200, and, depending on the look, might require several bundles of hair. The styles also require regular maintenance and clients are encouraged to get them shampooed at the salon.

Reggie Dowdy, the owner of Reginald Promise Dowdy salon in Middle River, said he does not keep the hair at his salon for fear of thefts; he orders it before clients come in for an appointment.

"If it's real quality, a four-ounce pack costs $200 to $300. A salon can easily go through $10,000 worth of hair with ordering just a few boxes," he said.

While synthetic hair is much cheaper — around $10 a pack, Dowdy said, stylists are limited in what they can do with it. Any heat from hair dryers, or curling and straightening irons will melt it. It can't be dyed.

Spruill, from the Canton salon, said the bundles of hair have been popular for some time. But with more natural-looking hairstyles coming into vogue, longer, unprocessed hair is in high demand.

In the 1980s, "it was more like you were wearing your crown," Spruill said. Now clients have moved from stiffer, sculpted styles to "more of a natural look." She said many younger girls in Baltimore want very long hair that reaches to the waist, with a more authentic-looking wave.

And the longer the bundle, the more expensive it is.

"To get hair that length is a big thing," she said, adding that two years ago, hair bundles longer than 24 inches were almost nonexistent.

Driving the trend, like most fashion, is Hollywood. Spruill said, "every African-American movie star with hair beyond their shoulders is going to have remy hair."

In high-quality, remy hair, she said, all of the strands run in the same direction, making it smoother and stronger. Lesser quality hair has strands that go in opposite directions, which can cause tangling.

Although the process is often associated with African-American women, Spruill said she has many Caucasian clients who are seeking added length or body.

"Everybody wants extensions, no matter the race," she said. "People want long, thick, shinier hair. They want good hair."

jkanderson@baltsun.com

twitter.com/janders5

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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