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Gold fever sweeps the criminal underworld

Tuesday, September 6th, 2011

by The Associated Press
Published: September 6, 2011
Gus Rodriguez looks more like a soldier than a jewelry store security guard, with a Beretta handgun strapped to his bulletproof vest, shades wrapped around his shaved head and pepper spray bulging from a breast pocket.

“I am not afraid,” the former Ecuadorean military man says, patting his pistol. “They call me Rambo.”

After a summer of brazen attacks on gold stores, parts of downtown Los Angeles now look more like a militarized zone than a commercial corridor.

The gold fever that has driven prices to an all-time high is also fueling a crime spree in the precious metal. Police nationwide are seeing an uptick in robberies and burglaries related to gold prices, which peaked at $1,891 an ounce last month, up more than $600 from a year earlier.

The FBI doesn’t keep numbers for gold thefts but local police departments have plenty of anecdotal evidence of a spike. Dozens of women have had their necklaces snatched in daylight attacks, burglars are targeting gold in homes and robbers in New Jersey even cleared out a mining museum’s irreplaceable collection of nuggets.

The beauty of gold, from a criminal stand point, is that it’s easy to fence. Rings and necklaces can be melted down — destroying the evidence — and sold. Precious items such as diamonds are harder to alter and easier to trace.

There were at least six Los Angeles gold store robberies in June and July. On Aug. 22, four men with hammers were arrested outside a jewelry store, Los Angeles police Lt. Paul Vernon said.

These thefts were suspected to have been carried out by gang members who covered their faces with hoods and hats, then rushed into stores and swiped what they could in a matter of seconds. One surveillance video shows a shopkeeper being blasted by pepper spray while robbers destroy display cabinets and grab what they can.

“Certainly the surging gold prices motivated these people to want to do these smash-and-grabs,” Vernon said. “They are not trading what they steal at the market value of gold. Even if they get it half that, they are making a pretty penny.”

In Oakland, police say dozens of women have had gold necklaces yanked from their necks on the street. More than 100 similar thefts have been reported in Los Angeles, a rash of robberies is taking place in St. Paul, Minn., and police in Phoenix say muggers chatted up high school girls then ripped their gold necklaces from them.

“We’ve never seen this,” said Oakland police Sgt. Holly Joshi. Most of the victims were robbed while distractedly looking at their phones.

In July, thieves smashed open a glass display in the Sterling Hill Mining Museum in New Jersey and made off with about $400,000 in gold samples collected from mines across the globe.

Rodriguez, the LA security guard, hasn’t had to use his weapon in the four months he’s stood guard. The stocky 44-year-old earned his nickname from gang members who he says regularly look him over as they slowly drive past the shops he patrols.

Most of the jewelry stores on Broadway are low-end enterprises with owners keen to make a quick buck buying jewelry, melting it and reselling it. The street alternates from squalid to splendid, dotted with crumbling former theaters and refurbished art deco high rises.

Opposing forces of gentrification and homelessness play out on the street, where hustlers stand outside cheap electronics stores blasting Mexican music and drivers swoop into secured garages beneath newly renovated apartment buildings.

A couple hundred yards down the street from Rodriguez, another gold store guard pops open the leather clasp securing his .357 magnum pistol when he sees two young men walking toward him.

Oscar Quintero says he’s never had to fully unholster his gun but a few weeks ago thwarted a robbery by blasting pepper spray at a man who tried to run away with a gold chain around his neck.

Crime Prevention Tips and Reminders

Friday, July 15th, 2011

> Crime Prevention Tips and Reminders
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> Home
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> Alarm System: Arm your alarm even if you are going to be gone for a short period of time. If you have a burglar alarm, make sure you have motion detectors and or glass breakage sensors. The burglars are breaking windows and entering homes in an attempt to bypass the alarm system.
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> Electronics: Please remember that if you have important information on your home computer, back it up on a separate device or use one of the many on-line back up services that are now available and automatically back up all of your information. It is devastating to lose years of family pictures or other valuable information because a thief took your computer and you didn’t take the time to save that information. Keep a file with all serial numbers of your electronics which can help us recover them.
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> Flood Lights: Floodlights with motion detectors can be effective in deterring people from wandering around your driveway or around your home. They are relatively inexpensive and can be installed easily. Once installed, the lights will come on immediately if someone enters that particular area near your home.
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> Neighborhood Watch: Please watch out for your neighbor?s property and call us if you see anything suspicious. A good rule of thumb is to call if you wonder whether or not you should call. ?When in doubt make the call.?
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> Door-to-Door Peddlers: I have received many calls and emails about the people selling magazines and cleaning supplies. Sometimes these people are extremely persistent or they attempt to pressure people by intimidation. In either case call the police if necessary. They believe if they put enough pressure on residents (and many times they are right) the resident will give them money to get them to leave. This of course just reinforces what they are doing. Do not give money to anyone who comes to your door that you do not know.
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> Door-to-Door Scams: A common scam involves people claiming to be out of gas or that their vehicle is disabled. They ask for a loan or money to help them out. This is just an example. Their scams are only limited to their imaginations. Again, do not give money to anyone at your door that you do not know.
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> Anytime an individual approaches you and states that they have material left over from another job, whether it is chemicals, asphalt or whatever, be suspicious.
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> Phone Calls: Don?t allow tele-marketers or local sales calls to pressure you into contributing money or signing up for services over the telephone for any reason. If you want to donate, ask to be sent something in the mail for your review. Always ask to be removed from their calling list before you just hang up. If you do not do this, they are allowed to call back. To be added to the nationwide ?Do Not Call List?, go to: https://www.donotcall.gov. This will prevent most sales calls to your home. Political advertising/solicitation and charities are exempt from the registry and so you must ask them, each time they call, to remove your number.
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> Inventory of Valuables: We have many thefts where people discover their jewelry missing months after they saw it last. It is a good idea to inventory your jewelry, valuable household items and guns and put all valuables in a secure location if possible.
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> Video Log of Valuables: Many people take a video camera and video everything in their home. This is invaluable after a fire and sometimes after a burglary. Things are taken or destroyed that you may never miss unless you have some kind of inventory available. There are also professional services that will do this for you. Ask your insurance agent about this idea and whether any of your items need a current appraisal in order for you to make a claim if something is lost or stolen.
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> Vehicles
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> Hide Valuables: Do not leave any items of value visible from the windows of your vehicle. Lock all items of value in the trunk of your vehicle. If thieves can see inside your vehicle and there is a purse, laptop or anything of significant value inside they will knock a window out to gain possession of that item. Another option is to leave your car unlocked with nothing of value inside.
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> Lock Your Car: Do not leave your car unlocked unless it has nothing of value in it and don?t ever leave your keys in your car. Many people have their house key on their car key ring and have a garage door opener inside a car that may be parked outside their home. Some people have a fob which controls their home alarm system on their key ring. This can compromise your personal security and that of your property. Remove your keys each time you leave your car so that no one can gain unauthorized entry.
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> Lock Your Car @ Daycare: Thieves have discovered that women who are dropping off or picking up children at day cares are easy victims because they leave their cars unlocked. Please be aware of this.
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> Please don?t leave keys on a tire when you go walking. Thieves know that people do this.
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> Convertibles: If you have a vehicle with a soft top, be aware that thieves are cutting those tops to steal from the vehicles. It is very expensive to have these tops repaired. It is better to leave these vehicles unlocked with no valuables inside than to have the top cut for an article worth much less than a new or repaired top.
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> Personal Safety & Theft
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> Parks, Trails, Shopping Trips: If you are out walking in a park or shopping in one of our villages, please pay attention to any suspicious vehicles or individuals. If someone looks out of place call the police department.
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> Parking Lots: Always be aware of who is nearby when you?re loading packages into your car. Lock your car before returning a buggy or cart to a store and watch your purse and car keys while loading or unloading your vehicle in a public place.
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> Grocery Shopping: When you are grocery shopping, don?t leave an unattended purse in a buggy. It only takes a second for a thief to remove your wallet or purse while you are distracted and you may not notice it until checkout.
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