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Hernando Sheriff's Office steps up holiday parking lot patrols

A Tampa police officer plays the role of a car burglar during a 2004 campaign to prevent thefts during the holiday season.

JOSEPH GARNETT JR. | Times (2004)

A Tampa police officer plays the role of a car burglar during a 2004 campaign to prevent thefts during the holiday season.

'Tis the season of jammed parking lots and tempting targets.

It's also the time of year when the Hernando Sheriff's Office assigns deputies to shopping plazas. The patrols will start this week, said Sgt. John McMurdo.

"We want people to feel safe when they get out of their car and come back with big purchases," McMurdo said. "If you go to a plaza, you're very likely going to see a patrol unit."

Through the holiday season, the agency rotates traffic, patrol and community policing deputies at the county's busy plazas and at stores such as Target and Walmart, McMurdo said. The hoofs of mounted units will be pounding the pavement, and rubber on the agency's mountain bikes might be rolling, too.

Deputies can't be everywhere, though, so McMurdo offered timeworn advice that bears repeating: Lock your doors, don't leave purchases and other valuables in plain view and park in well-lighted areas.

Though many burglaries are crimes of opportunity pulled off by amateurs, a string of break-ins in Hernando one day this month served as a warning about another, more organized breed of thief.

Two Thursdays ago, burglars smashed their way into a car at the YMCA on Mariner Boulevard and stole a purse, said sheriff's Sgt. Anthony Piarulli. The thieves tried without success to use the victim's credit card at Target on Commercial Way.

The same thieves broke into a car and stole a purse at nearby Progress Health and Fitness, then went on a shopping spree with stolen cards, ringing up purchases at 7-Eleven and Circle K stores and then at Target on Aerial Way. The same suspected thieves headed to Gold's Gym in Brooksville, where they broke into a car and stole a purse.

The crimes were committed in the style of an increasingly notorious group of thieves known as the Felony Lane Gang, Piarulli said. The theft ring started in South Florida and has spread — and inspired copycats — throughout the southeastern United States.

The transient thieves scope out parking lots of places such as gyms and day care centers, where women are likely to leave purses and wallets in their vehicles. After grabbing a purse, they immediately head to stores to use credit and debit cards, or to banks to cash stolen checks.

The thieves travel in groups that include women who can pass themselves off as a card's rightful owner. At the banks, they wear disguises and use the victim's driver license. To reduce the risk of getting caught, they use the farthest drive-through lane, dubbed "felony lane."

"It's definitely more organized than the typical smash and grab," Piarulli said.

Sue Kohner of Spring Hill was exercising at the YMCA that Thursday when a frantic staffer told her that someone had just broken into her Suzuki SUV.

The 48-year-old medical secretary left her purse on the rear floorboard, partially tucked under the front seat. The burglar smashed the rear passenger window. Kohner didn't have cash and canceled her credit and debit cards within minutes, apparently foiling the thieves' attempt to ring up charges at Target.

Kohner said is disconcerting to know someone might still have her driver's license, though.

"We just need to be alert that there are people willing to do anything to rip people off," she said. "That's just what this world is coming to."

Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1431. Follow @tmarrerotimes on Twitter.

Hernando Sheriff's Office steps up holiday parking lot patrols 11/26/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 26, 2013 7:16pm]
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