Theft Ring Targets Distracted Shoppers at SoCal Stores

A sophisticated theft ring is targeting shoppers and making off with wallets, purses and cellphones in the blink of an eye

By Joel Grover
|  Wednesday, Apr 30, 2014  |  Updated 5:18 AM PDT
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The NBC4 I-Team uncovers surveillance video showing a theft ring targeting distracted shoppers in Southern California supermarkets. Joel Grover reports for the NBC4 News at 11 on Monday, April 28, 2014.

Joel Grover, Ernesto Torres

The NBC4 I-Team uncovers surveillance video showing a theft ring targeting distracted shoppers in Southern California supermarkets. Joel Grover reports for the NBC4 News at 11 on Monday, April 28, 2014.

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A sophisticated theft ring is targeting shoppers at supermarkets across Southern California, an NBC4 I-Team investigation has found. Police tell NBC4 numerous shoppers have had purses, wallets and phones stolen in recent months.

Thieves are targeting the thousands of shoppers who make the same mistake: they leave their purses or valuables in their carts while browsing. The thieves strike the moment a shopper takes their eyes off their cart.

"If you go to a market, you're a potential target," LAPD undercover Det. Dennis Bopp told the I-Team.

Bopp said there has been a big spike in these supermarkets crimes in recent months.

It can happen to anyone, like actress Katey Sagal, star of "Married With Children" and "Sons of Anarchy." The I-Team obtained surveillance video of Sagal shopping at Sprout's Supermarket in Westwood in February, where she placed her wallet and phone in her shopping cart.

The video shows a young woman standing near Sagal, and the moment the actress turned away to bag some produce, the thief grabbed her wallet and phone out of the cart and headed for the exit.

"A shopper can become a victim in a matter of seconds," Bopp said.

The I-Team also obtained video of four different thefts from Whole Foods markets. In the video, a male and female can be seen following shoppers who are taking their eyes off their purses sitting in their carts.

Each time, when the shopper turned her head, the male grabbed valuables from the victim's purse and quickly left the store.

When the I-Team showed various thefts to Bopp, he immediately recognized all of the suspected thieves as part of a major theft ring hitting supermarkets.

"They work everywhere, all over the LA area, basically the entire greater Southern California." Bopp told NBC4.

According to police, the ring is composed of one male working with several females. Bopp said the
male usually arrives at a store with one of the females, sometimes finding a way to distract the shopper from their shopping cart.

Surveillance video also obtained by the I-Team from a Ralph's store on Olympic Boulevard in West LA shows the same man and woman seen in the Whole Foods videos, scoping out shoppers.

The video shows the pair idling near a shopper, who is distracted reading labels.

"I just got a feeling, like, this feels odd," that shopper told the I-Team, on the condition that we did not release her name.

She said she noticed the male holding up a large pizza box to block her view of her cart, where she'd left her purse.

"When I went to reach for something (off a shelf) he leaned in," the victim said.

Store cameras show the thief snagging the shopper's wallet and phone from her purse, then walking out the front door with wallet in hand, following by his alleged accomplice.

"I definitely had my eyes off my cart," the victim told NBC4.

In the next hour, before she could cancel all her credit cards, the thieves used one of her cards to get a $2,500 cash advance at Chase Bank, and used other cards to try and charge $17,000 at Bloomingdale's.

"I was surprised that they could move so fast," the victim said.

Police want the I-Team to warn all shoppers that they could be targets.

"Make sure you know where your valuables are when you're in the market," Bopp says. "I recommend keeping them on your person."

That means women should ideally wear their purses with the strap across their body, and if you have a wallet, credit cards, or IDs, they should be kept in front pockets - not in shopping carts.

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