Every year the Jewelers’ Security Alliance receives numerous reports of clever thieves duping retail jewelers out of valuable merchandise. Millions of dollars in merchandise is stolen, not by force but by trickery. Thieves have fooled even the most experienced jewelry professionals.
They’ve posed as doctors, foreign businesspeople, heirs to fortunes, professional athletes, sport scouts, movie producers, CIA agents, royalty, even other jewelers. Impersonating wealth or success is the key to committing a confidence scam, and these impersonations can take many sizes and shapes.
In the past year, JSA has examined a number of cases in which suspects posed as professional football players before scoring a load of jewelry. In June, for example, a man who stood about 6 feet 7 inches and called himself Napoleon entered a jewelry store in fashionable Boca Raton, Fla., and claimed to play professional football. He got a sales assoc-iate to model a $54,000 diamond and gold necklace. When she took it off, he took off with the necklace. In July, Napoleon obtained a women’s Rolex from a store in Plantation, Fla., by using a similar grab-and-run technique.
Serious sport fans may not have been taken in by a man who walked up to the jewelry counter in a Beverly Hills department store and claimed to play for the Los Angeles Raiders. However, one sales associate was convinced he was the real thing. The associate even obtained the alleged football star’s autograph before he dashed out of the store with a $31,000 diamond ring. Let’s go to the videotape! The same person allegedly dashed away with two diamond rings valued at $54,000 in Burbank, Cal., and $90,000 in diamond jewelry in Torrance, Cal., before finally being tackled … er, apprehended … by police.
Sports figures aren’t the only guises. A particularly elusive group posing as wealthy Arab royalty is believed to have used clever distraction techniques in more than a half-dozen fine jewelry stores from New York to California.
The group visited a Park Avenue jewelry store in New York City in June 1995. Members claimed to be the royal family of Kuwait and even used the proper family name of El Saba. One woman wore the appropriate loose-fitting Arabic-style clothing and was allowed to sit in the safe room in close proximity to the store’s safe. They carried their charade so far that the “Prince” even handed out $100 bills as tips to helpful sales associates.
With their guards down and their attention distracted, store employees were unaware that a member of this royal scheme team had removed $600,000 in merchandise from the safe. They discovered the loss upon returning from lunch. Authorities believe the same group appeared the next day in several Beverly Hills jewelry stores, duping one jeweler out of $200,000 in goods.
The same band of thieves is believed to have struck exactly one year later in St. Louis, Mo., and two days after that in Costa Mesa, Cal. Though this “royal family’s” empire seems to have grown (they have also claimed to be Indian and Saudi Arabian royalty), the scam remains the same.
In most of these “royalty” cases, the “Prince” selected a $175,000 diamond ring to buy and asked to have it wrapped. He was allowed to put a handwritten note in the box, then the group left with a promise to return later for the box after it was wrapped. When no one returned, the employees found the ring missing from the box.
The royal family impersonators continue to be active throughout the U.S.; cases occurred as recently as December in Chicago and Beverly Hills. Losses in this royal rip-off have reached about $1.6 million.
Confidence is key
To understand how a scam is committed, we must examine how both parties approach a sale. At the counter, the customer and salesperson become comfortable with each other. The danger is the salesperson may become comfortable with the wrong customer. That charming, elderly woman with pictures of her grandchildren might be a lifelong thief with her eye on 2-ct. diamond solitaire that she can switch for cubic zirconia. The pictures of the grandchildren might have been inside the wallet she stole last weekend in the same mall. Such an error in judgment can be quite costly to you.
The good news is that the grinning grandma and nearly every other scam artist can be stopped in their tracks. The secret is to peel away the layers of deceit. A sharp thief is an actor. He or she will carefully reveal tidbits of information that paint the picture of a successful, wealthy individual, all the while building a “confidence” intended to cause you to lower your guard. The term “con man” derives from the thief’s ability to gain your confidence.
This concept sounds simple, but some criminals develop elaborate, even sophisticated, schemes to gain your confidence so you’ll accept their check or let them alone with merchandise. They’ll make or receive calls on their cellular phone, wear flashy watches and drive shiny red sports cars. They may speak in your native language, drop names of famous or wealthy people and quietly tell you how much money they are about to inherit from an uncle. They might talk about the sprawling 15-acre estate they just bought or about the extravagant vacation they took on St. Maarten. The thief sets his bait hoping to lure you into his trap. If you keep your eyes open and tread cautiously, you won’t be caught.
SIX QUICK TIPS TO THWART THIEVES
Recognizing deception is the key to unmasking a con artist. Nearly every scam has weaknesses that, if exploited, will shake the foundation of the scam and reveal the criminal’s intent.
Be aware of flashy behavior or braggadocio. If people call attention to their expensive clothing, cars or jewelry, ask yourself why they are doing it. The best thing to do when confronted with a flashy stranger is to maintain a skeptical eye.
Don’t be taken in by people who claim to be famous or to know famous people. Everyone gets star-struck; criminals hope you will too.
Be suspicious of vague personal details, especially with out-of-towners. If they don’t really say why they’re in town, where they’re staying or who specifically recommended they visit your store, it can be a telling indication of their intent.
Be suspicious of someone from out of town looking to make a large purchase of an item easily obtained in their hometown. They may try to pass a bad check or other paper instrument.
Be suspicious of any stranger handing out large tips for little effort. This is a clear sign that chicanery is afoot in the palace.
Check all references! If the alleged customers say they do business with another company, ask who they dealt with at that company. Call the company and verify the story. If the story has holes, the bouncing check will probably fit right through them. Review these recommendations with all of your employees. Additional information on crime prevention for the retail jeweler is contained in the Jewelers’ Security Alliance Manual of Jewelry Security 1996-1997, which is available from the Jewelers’ Security Alliance, Six East 45th St., Suite 1005, New York, NY 10017; (800) 537-0067.