Personal thefts in offices on the rise

December 5, 2008 4:05:37 PM PST
As if fears of a crashing economy and possible layoffs weren't enough, now downtown workers need to worry about getting their stuff swiped from the office. Dallas police say they've seen a significant spike in petty criminals who sneak into high-rise buildings dressed as if they belong, then wander around workplaces stealing laptops and taking cash from wallets and purses. Police call these stealthy crooks "office creepers" and say the crime is on the rise while other offenses are down.

While some might think the economy is pushing thieves to more creative tactics, Dallas Police Officer Eric Tabbert said he thinks successful enforcement and longer sentences for other crimes may be to blame.

"They're trying to find a happier hunting ground that may be a little bit safer and they're less likely to be caught," said Tabbert, a downtown business community liaison officer.

Police have received many more reports of creeping this year and have arrested 15 suspects in the past six months, Tabbert said.

Creepers usually operate solo, Tabbert said, though some work in pairs. When working in pairs, one might act as a lookout as they communicate on cell phones and walkie talkies. Sometimes they create diversions. For example, a woman with a baby might create a distraction while her partner sails past security to rifle through desks, Tabbert said.

They often enter locked office buildings by "piggy-backing" on an employee with access who may have even held the door open as a kindness.

The thieves prefer high-rise buildings, especially large law or accounting firms with plenty of floors on which to roam, but single-story offices are not immune.

Even City Hall's not immune. Two laptops were swiped by creepers this month, including one that was used by an employee whose job was to apply for homeland security grants. The city responded by beefing up patrols in common areas, placing keypad locks on doors and encouraging employees to wear their security badges.

Tabbert knew of a case where a smartly dressed creeper walked around an office with a clipboard in hand, looking as if he was assessing or grading someone. No one questioned him. Some have been known to don generic service uniforms to pass for deliverymen, custodians or maintenance workers.

Police advise workers to lock up their purses, avoid putting their wallets in jackets hung on hall racks and to secure their laptops when they step away. The best deterrent is awareness and confrontation when encountering strangers, Tabbert said.

"Look them straight in the eye. The very fact that their presence is acknowledged is enough to send them packing," he said.

Houston and San Antonio, the only Texas cities larger than Dallas, have not reported similar increases.

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