Theft gangs roaming St. George area, distracting and preying on shoppers, businesses

Supermarkets, jewelry stores and the elderly are frequent targets.

(St. George Police Department via Facebook) Two thieves work in tandem at a supermarket in St. George. A female keeps lookout and distracts an elderly woman while the male repeatedly rifles through the shopper’s purse.

St. George • Roving bands of thieves are driving shoppers and business owners in Washington County to distraction and making them pay.

Police in several cities along the Interstate-15 corridor in southwest Utah say there’s been a surge in activity from theft rings, some of them from foreign countries and some with gang ties, whose modus operandi is to distract and then steal from shoppers and shop owners. Thieves are also targeting cars in parking lots at churches, department stores and trailheads.

“We have really seen an uptick in theft,” said St. George police spokeswoman Tiffany Mitchell. “Distraction theft and smash and grabs are some of the crimes we are seeing from [these] groups.”

Caught on camera

A particularly brazen example captured on video, which is posted on the St. George Police Department’s Facebook page, shows two thieves working in tandem at a supermarket, a female keeping a lookout and distracting an elderly woman while the male repeatedly rifles through the shopper’s purse. The pickpockets, who were in the country illegally, were subsequently arrested, Mitchell said.

St. George police also arrested two suspects recently for allegedly breaking into vehicles and stealing bank cards they used to withdraw large sums of cash from victims’ bank accounts. The couple carried fake ID from Puerto Rico but investigators consulting with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security determined they were actually from Chile, according to police.

Mitchell said the roving bandits should not be confused with the wave of immigrants who are crossing the border illegally to make a new life in the U.S.

“These [thieves] are coming here specifically to commit crimes,” she said.

The problem is not limited to St. George. Police in neighboring Washington City and Hurricane say they also have nabbed members of traveling theft rings, carrying fake passports and other forms of identification to gain entrance to the United States. For example, police say, a female pickpocketer police arrested in a Washington City Walmart recently was from South America.

Stealing and scamming

Wherever they are from, the wandering gangs’ tactics are much the same. They rely largely on distraction and target people – often the elderly – in large supermarkets and department stores. Typically, police explain, the thieves will operate in groups of two or three. One or two of them will converse with and distract victims, while the other covertly steals their purse or valuables out of their grocery carts. Distraction thieves also converge at jewelry stores, where one will monopolize the owner’s attention as the other pilfers pricey items from behind the counter or from unlocked display cases.

“They will grab watches, rings, bracelets or whatever they can quickly shove into their pocket while the other has the clerk distracted,” St. George police Detective Scott Cleveland said. “Once they are done, then all of them will leave.”

Even churches are no safe havens from theft. Cleveland said some theft ring members don white shirts and ties and roam church parking lots, stealing valuables from unlocked cars while their owners are inside attending services. Others sporting hiking gear do smash and grabs on locked cars or burglarize valuables from unlocked vehicles parked at area trailheads.

Even when itinerant thieves are not stealing, they are often scamming victims. Hurricane police Sgt. Dan Raddatz said one popular ruse scam artists use is to offer customers at gas stations worthless costume trinkets they claim to be expensive gold jewelry in exchange for gas money. Others, he said, corner customers at Walmart, pleading poverty and asking them to buy items they desperately need but can’t afford.

“Then [the scammers] take the items they received to a different Walmart and exchange them for either cash or gift cards.”

Mitchell said the recent rash of distraction thefts in St. George is reflective of a problem nationally that is growing and getting worse. According to the Zing Report, an “editorial platform” for members of the jewelry and gemstone industries, distracted theft rings have been around for decades but are now on the rise.

For his part, Cleveland attributes some of the perceived increase in theft to people becoming more aware of illegal activity due to social media and higher-quality video surveillance at homes and in stores.

“People are more likely to report it,” he said.

Mitchell said many of the arrests St. George officers make are, in large part, due to reports from residents.

For example, a tip St. George police received from a resident a few weeks ago led to the arrest of three suspects, one of whom was wanted for a murder in Colorado.

St. George residents who witness a crime or suspicious behavior are encouraged to report it by calling 435-627-4300.

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