Roving thieves strike county Police report 17 cases of 'burglary by deception'; 'A tremendous problem'; Elderly often targets of ruses by organized groups of criminals


For everything there is a season -- even stealing. Baltimore County police say that the roving thieves who arrive with the warm weather are back in town.

Seventeen cases of "burglary by deception" have been reported since the end of March at homes in Dundalk, Cockeysville and Towson. Police say the cases show striking similarities that suggest the culprits are organized.

"They work nationwide -- they're a migrating group of people," said Ed Spragg, a Baltimore County detective assigned to burglary. The thieves choose elderly victims, he said, because "it's easier for them to confuse, to fast-talk them."

Some of the 17 burglaries have happened while elderly homeowners worked in the yard. Thieves slip in an unlocked door while the owner works outside, police said.

In cases where the thief and the victim interact, Spragg said, deceptions involving water pipes and tree trimming have been used.

Thieves posing as utility workers have gained entry by saying they need to check the pipes, Spragg said. The homeowner is sent to the kitchen or basement to knock on the pipes so the "repairman" can find the problem. Instead, while the homeowner is knocking on the water pipes, the thief and possibly an accomplice are plundering the house, he said.

The "tree trimmers" take the homeowner outside to show the trees that supposedly need work, and an accomplice goes into the house to steal, he said.

The thefts in Dundalk, mostly the water-pipe variety, netted small amounts of cash and jewelry, Spragg said. The north county thefts have been larger -- Spragg said that in one of the Cockeysville thefts, a silver pitcher valued at $10,000 was stolen from a home while the owner worked in the yard.

Spragg said that thefts involving deception are generally the work of an organized group that moves around the United States during the year.

He said police believe the cases are linked because the same deceptions are used in case after case. The items taken -- cash, silver and jewelry -- also indicate a knowledgeable, organized team of thieves.

Such organized thefts are a national problem, said Jon Grow, executive director of the Baltimore-based National Association of Bunco Investigators Inc., formed in 1984. ("Bunco," from the Spanish word for bank, is a slang term for theft.)

"If you know of 17, it's probably 117," Grow said of Baltimore County thefts this year. Often the thefts go unreported because homeowners may not realize they have been robbed (when silver used only on special occasions is stolen, for instance) or because they don't want younger family members to know they were swindled, he said.

Grow said there are several organized bands of thieves working in the United States. One group, called the "travelers," are from England, Ireland and Scotland, he said. The others come from Eastern Europe.

Grow pointed out that recent arrests in Philadelphia of a group of men suspected in deception burglaries netted thousands of dollars -- and keys to five safe-deposit boxes the men had rented. Two of the boxes were in New Jersey banks, one was in Georgia, and two were in Florida, Grow said.

The boxes yielded more than $1.8 million in cash, he said.

"They've been hitting in the last few years in the very affluent areas," Grow said. "It's a tremendous problem."

Grow and Spragg said that homeowners can protect themselves by keeping all doors locked while they're in the yard, and checking with the utility company before letting anyone who identifies himself as an employee into the house.

"Don't let anyone in without proper ID -- especially utility workers," Spragg said.

Pub Date: 5/26/98

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