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If I Were a Crook

To catch a thief, sometimes you have to think like one.

October 01, 2007  |  by Steve Albrecht


Since 1984, I've worked as either a patrol officer, reserve officer, reserve sergeant, field training officer, domestic violence unit investigator, classroom trainer, tactical trainer, police book author, and (currently) as a consultant to an agency developing an Early Identification-Early Intervention system to prevent officer misconduct. That's 23 years working in the field of law enforcement.

As such, there seems little likelihood that I will suddenly go native and join the criminal ranks. And I wouldn't recommend that you do so either. But I would recommend that you give some thought to how you would commit crimes if you were so inclined. After all, to catch a thief, you need to get into his head.

So, if I were a crook these are some of the methods and techniques I would use to victimize the people in your jurisdiction. Believe me, bad guys in your patrol area are doing exactly what I would do if I was a crook.

MASTER of DISGUISES

The Delivery Guy

I'd wear a khaki work uniform and carry a battered metal clipboard with some forms attached to it. And I'd get into all types of businesses, stores, and facilities because I would look like I belonged there. No one would challenge me and if they do, I might say, cheerily, "Just making a delivery!" or in a pinch, "¿Que? Lo siento, pero no hablo ingles."

I'd also wear an untucked work shirt with a name over the pocket and push a hand truck (which would be quite useful for stealing computers, TV sets, boxed, or crated items from warehouses, stores, or loading docks).

The Business Guy

I'd wear an expensive suit, cut my hair short, dye it gray, and carry a briefcase big enough to stuff stolen property, credit cards, wallets, purses, or laptop computers into. Then I'd pretend to be a vendor, salesman, or an executive just in from the Dallas office. After I left with some important items stolen from the company I just "visited," witnesses would describe me as looking like every other executive or professional person in the building.

Mean Green

I'd wear dark green clothing at night when I'm out and prowling about. Donning all-black clothing is a cliché for crooks like me and, besides, dark green blends in much better than black in nighttime environments.

Auto Identity Theft

I'd drive an expensive luxury car, with stolen plates that match the year, make, and model of my car. I'd accomplish this by stealing the front plate off of a similar car, then I'd peel off the month and year registration stickers from yet another car of the same model. Unless the cops check the VIN, I'm pretty safe. And think about it, how many drivers would notice their front plates are missing? How many would think to report them as stolen instead of lost?

Lights Out

Finally, I'd install a brake light kill switch in my car, just like the cops have in their patrol cars so I could sneak and peek through the alleys, headlights off and all blacked out, front to back. This handy device would make it easier for me to disappear should I get into a police pursuit.

SLEIGHT of HAND

The Credit Card Switcheroo

I'd figure out a way to steal credit cards without the wallet or purse owner realizing it until way later. This is easily accomplished by switching the same brand and color credit cards (silver, gold, black, white, etc.) with previously stolen ones. By the time my victim discovered his or her American Express gold card actually belongs to another previous victim, it could be a week or a month and I'm long gone.

With my stolen (and yet to be reported) credit cards in hand, I would stay at four-star hotels, eat in fine restaurants, and rent fancy cars, which I would steal later anyway.

Five-Finger Discount

I'd shoplift all the food or liquor I'd need in the convenience store, mostly when it's busy, and always by paying for at least one item. Buy a can of beer, after stuffing a six-pack or two in my backpack. Buy a pack of smokes, after concealing a carton from the display rack under my jacket.

USED CAR SHOPPING

Shopping Centers

I'd hit the carpool park-and-rides, movie theaters, college campuses, and best yet the high school parking lots to steal the cars I need. I know these people will be gone for at least two hours, if not eight or more. Those high schoolers might be driving Mom and Dad's nice SUV with the tinted windows and the TVs in the seats.

I'd cruise the offsite airport parking lots, off the actual airport property (no need to run in to the Airport Police, Port Authority Police, or Harbor Police while casing). I can steal the car I want with no real concern for private security guards (if they even work there or bother to patrol the lot at all, much less have the stones to try and stop me). I'll just drive the luxury car of my choice to the exit booth, pay the "lost ticket rate" (or give the cashier a good sob story about losing my ticket on the plane) and leave. Even if I have to pay $100 to get the car out of the lot, it's not a bad investment, considering what I'll get for the car in Mexico or at the chop shop.

BREAKING and ENTERING

Through the Roof

I'd go in through the roof for my commercial burglaries. There are many flimsy fiberglass skylights, rusted vent covers, and drop-down ceilings to ease my entry. If I did set off the burglar alarm after my roof entry, I'd just lie low inside until the cops came and did their usual burglary call response routine: park away, walk up in key-jangling and radio-loud stealth mode, circle the property, check to see if the doors are all locked, listen for the sound of sawing or safe-cracking (often over the din of the ringing alarm), and then leave.

Once the cops were gone, I'd rip off what I wanted, exit the building, and walk away. A good windy or rainy night will help convince all involved—911 callers, police dispatchers, re-responding officers—that the "chronic alarm" is going off unnecessarily again.

Tools of Convenience

The best way to gain access to a house would be to use whatever tools the homeowner left me for my residential burglaries. The average yard has all kind of useful stuff laying around, including axes, shovels, hoes, hammers, ladders, and nicely-stacked lawn furniture. With the a ladder or even a lawn chair I could get on to the roof and through the usually unlocked second-story window. Heck I could do it in broad daylight. All I would have to do is wearing a white painter's hat and clothes and driving a work van that would help me blend.

Stashing the Loot

I'd hide my swag a few blocks away from the scene and walk back to my car, which would be parked about a half-mile away in a place where similarly parked cars don't draw any attention. If a cop stopped me, I'd just say my car broke down back where it's now parked in case the officer wants to give me a ride and say I got lost looking for a pay phone. The next day, I can go drive back to my hiding place, recover what I've left, and move on.

WATCHIN' DA MAN

Hours of the Witch

I'd schedule my burglaries or store robberies during the police witching hour, just before the tired and cranky graveyard officers go off duty and right before the tired and cranky first shift officers hit the field. Since I know a lot of cops hide out near the station so they can zoom in and get off work on time, I'd plan my commercial burgs or convenience store robberies for locations as far from police stations as I can, thereby lengthening their response times.

After the Badges Leave

I'd plan my convenience store or 24-hour restaurant robberies about 30 minutes after the cops have left with their coffee or full bellies. Not much chance of them returning for more food or more coffee within that span, so I can be more certain that they are all the way across town when I strike. Plus, I'm guessing that store clerks and restaurant managers might drop their guard and not be very vigilant if the cops have just left their establishments.

FRAZZLED VICTIMS

Distracted Citizens

I'd sit at the bus stop near the mailbox if I needed to steal a car. I'd just wait for some unsuspecting driver to get out, leave the engine running, and head to the mailbox, letter in hand. While he or she was busy at the box, I'd be busy driving away. I can also hang around the local post office, since some people leave the keys in the ignition while they run inside to get their mail, too.

I'd also wait outside a convenience store in the early morning, reading the paper and drinking my coffee. When the same driver who leaves the keys in the car at the mailbox did it in the parking lot, I'd hop in and drive off as soon as he started to put the creamer in his cup.

Night Deposits

I'd sit patiently outside pawnshops, check cashing stores, Western Union offices, Casa de Cambios (foreign money exchanges near every one of our southern border cities), or ATMs. After the customer has completed his or her transaction and is walking back to his or her car, I'm out of my car and being busy with my gun. While they're distracted counting their money or thinking about what they have to pay for with that money, I'd be ready to strike.

How Convenient

I'd prey upon the laziness of convenience store clerks, especially when they go on a quick bathroom break in the wee hours (no pun intended) and leave the cash register and the whole store unattended. I'll cut the cable and take the whole register.

If I was a crook, I'd work hard to prove the old saying that cops always repeat: "We only catch the dumb ones." Crooks who think smart, act smart, and work smart are the ones who get away. These are not the ones who wear their same "lucky" Oakland Raiders jackets when they rob a store; these are the ones who treat their work as a profession, and who prey upon the weakness, ignorance, and lack of common sense or attention by citizens masquerading as sheep.

Our job as law enforcement officers is to start matching their bright ideas for crimes with even better "stop 'em" solutions of our own.

Steve Albrecht worked for the San Diego Police Department from 1984 to 1999. His police books include "Streetwork," "Surviving Street Patrol," "One-Strike-Stopping Power," and "Contact and Cover" (with John Morrison).

Tags: Officer Psychology


Comments (1)

Displaying 1 - 1 of 1

Random @ 4/9/2012 6:52 AM

This is why it is good to be friends with private security. Security is scheduled one or two hours difrently. Pass near enough to an old guard and you don't even have to ask.

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