Stealing the Summer Fun


By Valerie Yu, Special to the Independent


Tight Assets’ owner Heidi Miller sometimes feels like an undercover cop, scrutinizing would-be thieves posing as customers. Photo by Danielle Robbins

As summer climbs to its prime, Laguna streets become the perfect breeding grounds for theft —all variations of it.

Last week at the Susi Q, a group of locals, mostly merchants, were poised for a fight against theft at the Chamber of Commerce’s “To Catch a Thief” workshop, led by Laguna Beach police Detective Zach Martinez. While theft ranges from shoplifting to white-collar fraud, identity theft is a growing problem that affects nine million Americans yearly, he told listeners. And while the city’s incidence of theft is on the rise, 41 percent of the increase is attributed to vehicle thefts.

Cases of identity theft run galore in Laguna. Recently, an overseas group made off with $400,000 from a house loan they had obtained by purloining personal information of the owner, whose second home had high equity. Police declined to disclose more details as the case is still under investigation.

Groups also exploit the feelings of the unsuspecting. In infamous grandma and grandpa scams, crooks research family connections, putting grandparents under the impression that loved ones are in trouble. One Laguna resident almost shipped $10,000 to Canada to “bail” her grandson out, said Martinez.

“We have to fight identity theft together. Be diligent and get the word out to these crooks that Laguna Beach will be a really hard place to commit these offenses,” said Martinez. “We have to toughen up, because the criminals know we’re not doing our double-checking.”

Thieves use technology to their benefit, one example being skimmers lodged in places like gas pumps to record unsuspecting patrons’ credit card numbers. Crooks also manipulate gift cards, printing their name on the front but putting victims’ stolen credit card information on the back, Martinez explained.

However, the solution may be simple: prevention. “Train your employees to look at the receipt, which has the victim’s information. If the receipt doesn’t match up to the name, pick up the phone, dial 911, because we have a suspect right there,” Martinez urged merchants.

Merchants of Laguna shared their experiences with theft at the workshop.

On Forest Avenue, Fredric H. Rubel’s Jewelers owner David Rubel is on the lookout. “The worst thing you can do is put your head down or go back to your work. You need to pay attention. When [crooks] come into your store, they do things differently; they look around, they don’t focus, they do things that are abnormal,” he said.

In her 16 years as owner of Tight Assets, owner Heidi Miller has seen all kinds of shoplifters, from teenage girls to 60-year-olds. Though she has lost “thousands and thousands of dollars,” she’s recouped the majority before it left the premises, always watching the store like a hawk. “I have had everything from multiple felony arrests to misdemeanor shoplifting. It’s just a feature of the beach. You just have to keep your eyes on things and know what to watch for.” She confided that at times, she feels like an undercover cop.

Appearances can fool. Of a pair of innocent-looking teens who shoplifted several rings, Sutton Place Boutique store employee Cheryl Thiel said, “It’s upsetting. From the looks of it, I assumed they wouldn’t do that kind of thing.”

“These groups are smart; that’s why we have to be smarter,” Martinez said. “Police can’t do it alone.”

Chiming in at the workshop, former Laguna mayor and current city council member Toni Iseman pointed out that a proposal installing surveillance cameras downtown was shot down some years ago.

“The issue came up before, and there’s now more support for it,” said Iseman, saying advances in data collection have swept aside invasion of privacy concerns. “For the people who are worried about Big Brother, it’s over. It’s corporate America; they know what you buy for groceries. At this point, having cameras wouldn’t create any further violation of privacy, but it does give us the opportunity to catch a thief.”

Prevention can also discourage shoplifting, police say. Lt. Jason Kravetz encourages all clothing shop owners to tag merchandise, and to keep grabbable items away from the front door and nearer the register. “Look out for distraction thieves, people who distract the one clerk on duty while the other steals,” cautioned Kravetz.

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