The Pretenders

Watch out for that clown. He may be one of a special breed of jewelry thief that uses impersonation to impress, distract, or confuse jewelers in order to rob them. These charlatans contributed to the $27.5 million dollars of loss resulting from in-store jewelry theft in 2001, according to Jewelers’ Security Alliance statistics.

To help put jewelers on their guard against counterfeit clowns and sham sheiks, JCK compiled the following rogues’ gallery of recent jewel-thief imposters.

Bozo the thief. A smash-and-grab heist at a Gordon’s Jewelers in the Lebanon Plaza Mall in Lebanon, Pa., was reported by the Lebanon Daily News in the fall of 2001. It sounds like an ordinary crime, until you read the description of the culprit—a clown—and the day of the theft—Halloween.

An excerpt from the newspaper article explains what happened:

Even though it was Halloween, the man’s white clown makeup aroused the saleswoman’s suspicions. According to the police, the man’s face was painted white, with a red painted nose and lips and a blue chevron drawn on each cheek.

“I asked him for his ID, and he wouldn’t give it to me,” the [sales] woman said. “He left for several minutes and then came back and immediately started (pounding the case).”

The experts say: When someone’s face is completely concealed, as by a Halloween mask, think safety first. “Wearing a clown getup is the same as wearing a ski mask,” observes JSA president John Kennedy. Don’t rush to approach the person. If you have a buzzer-operated entrance, don’t buzz the person in. Point to your face as a sign that a concealed identity is a safety issue for your store; vocalize that message if you have an intercom.

Inside the store, ask for photo identification. If the person produces one and you’re still skeptical, ask for a second form of ID. If the person wants to buy something, tell him or her you’ll have to call appropriate authorities, such as a credit card company, to further verify identity.

The spurious meter reader. At press time, JSA reported that a man posing as a meter reader had entered a mall-based jewelry store in Williamsville, N.Y., and robbed it.

The experts say: “If somebody isn’t your regular FedEx driver or gas meter reader, ask him or her for photo identification,” says Dan McCaffrey, a special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Kew Gardens, N.Y. “Sometimes former employees of these companies are able to retain their service uniforms and identification, so it’s good to question people.”

If you’re suspicious of a package-delivery person who’s in your store for a pickup, use a stalling tactic. For example, make up an excuse such as, “The setting isn’t quite right” to postpone the pickup until you can verify identities.

Royal ruse. Newspapers in Canada, Hawaii, Australia, and California have published articles about jewelers victimized by persons claiming to be Saudi royalty, including a pair masquerading as a Saudi prince and princess. Both thieves appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent and were accompanied by associates whom the “royals” referred to as their “bodyguards.” The male suspect even presented a business card to one of his victims, making the ruse even more convincing. In all these “royal robberies,” the perpetrators palmed jewelry. (Sources: The Sunday Telegraph, Sydney, Australia; The Toronto Sun, Toronto, Canada; Crimestoppers, Honolulu, news release; The Star Bulletin, Honolulu.)

The counterfeit cleric. An August 2002 article in The Tulsa World, Tulsa, Okla., reported a string of incidents involving a man posing as a pastor who tried to buy gold jewelry with purchase orders from his “church.” One store was defrauded out of $1,200 in merchandise, but staff members at another store weren’t fooled. Despite being shown an authentic-looking business card indicating the man’s status as a local church pastor, they notified the police.

The experts say: No matter who the customer says he is, don’t stray from standard procedures. “Don’t hand over six bracelets at one time for any customer to view, even if you suspect they’re prestigious,” Kennedy says. Keep your eyes on the merchandise at all times, but don’t forget that genuine ministers and real celebrities buy jewelry, too. “I’ve talked to more than one jeweler who’s waited on real Saudi royalty,” says Kennedy.

If you do become suspicious, try to stall for time. “Some stores have a guest book for famous visitors to sign,” notes Commander Jeff Ross, an officer with the Northbrook, Ill., police department who deals with South American jewel theft suspects. “This offers the jeweler a cushion of time to verify identity, get a handwriting sample, and possibly fingerprints for police to obtain at a later date. Ask the person to pose for a photograph. The jeweler should be talkative; perhaps he’ll verify if the person is for real or not.”

Heighten your awareness of anyone who has “good name recognition with poor visibility, such as a Saudi prince,” says the FBI’s McCaffrey. These types may be mentioned in the media, but they aren’t frequently photographed, he adds.

Most celebrities and other high-profile individuals don’t want to command attention. “Real high-profile individuals want to maintain as low a profile as possible,” says McCaffrey. “Someone famous will often make an appointment to shop in a private area of the store.” Pay close attention to those who travel with entourages, display large sums of cash, and have special food, beverage, or jewelry requests. “These are all ways of distracting jewelers and preventing them from verifying thieves’ true identities,” says McCaffrey.