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Bay area beach-blanket thieves spike

CLEARWATER — He was only gone for 30 minutes.

Michael Marsh, 50, plopped his backpack on a lounge chair at the Sandpearl Resort on Clearwater Beach and went for a swim. Coming back to the sand, he noticed police officers. A bag had just been stolen. He turned to inspect his own belongings.

"Sure enough," he said, "my backpack was gone as well."

Within an hour, the thief had charged $277 on his American Express card. Marsh's iPhone and wallet were also stolen.

Summertime is peak season for beaches, attracting thousands of visitors seeking solace from Florida's high humidity and sizzling temperatures.

The problem, police say: Petty criminals also typically lurk at the beaches this time of year, searching for unattended bags and belongings left on the sand, including on Clearwater Beach, where dozens of thefts have been reported so far this summer.

"It's the best beach in Florida," said Clearwater police beach commander Lt. David Dalton. "When everyone wants to come and enjoy the beautiful beach that is Clearwater, there are unfortunately those people that look to take advantage of others."

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From May through July, nearly 40 beach blanket thefts have been reported at Clearwater Beach. Last year during the same time period, it was 22.

Police attribute the spike to more visitors at the beach. During the Fourth of July, about 25,000 cars came to the area, said city spokeswoman Joelle Castelli.

Usually a popular spot during morning and afternoon hours, more people are going to the beach in the evening. Several large-scale events, including the Sugar Sand Festival, attract more visitors as well to Clearwater Beach.

"It's a very active beach now," Castelli said. "So there's opportunities for crimes of opportunity."

That includes beach-blanket thefts, which occur when patrons leave their belongings unattended while going for a swim or walk. Smartphones and other electronics are among the most commonly stolen items. Beachgoers could leave their valuables at home, but they don't. "People have a false sense of security with their belongings," Castelli said. "They can't part themselves from their phones or iPads."

Other beaches have noticed the trend. Of the 12 beach-blanket thefts reported to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office from May to July, eight included stolen iPhones.

But other stolen goods include clothing, sunglasses, jewelry and wallets, Clearwater police records show.

During a July theft, for instance, two bags containing cell phones, car keys, credit cards and a gold watch and earrings were snatched near a lifeguard tower. No one saw the suspect.

As many as 10 officers, either uniformed or in plain clothes, patrol Clearwater Beach on any given day. So far, Clearwater police have made about seven arrests. In one case, a description of a suspect was radioed to patrolling officers. Moments later, they located the man, identified as Michael Roach. He was still carrying stolen items, including phones and a wallet, reports show.

Police also track thieves through activity on stolen credit cards, Dalton said.

At Treasure Island, detective Trenton Taylor said no beach blanket thefts have been reported so far this year. About three were reported in 2012. Officers there patrol the beach about every hour.

Motel keys, Taylor added, are a favorite of thieves. In one case, a thief swiped someone's key, printed with the motel's name and room number, and burglarized the victim's room.

At Honeymoon Island State Park, which sees 1.1 million visitors each year, no thefts have been reported. Volunteers, park rangers and Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission officers patrol the shores, said the agency's spokesman, Baryl Martin.

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Preventing a beach blanket theft, police say, is easy.

"Don't leave," said Dalton, the Clearwater Beach commander. "You go to Raymond James Stadium, you go to the mall, you don't leave your property and walk off."

If you do take belongings to the sand, Martin said, make sure they're not of value. Leave valuables such as phones, iPads, money and jewelry inside locked cars or at home.

At Clearwater Beach, visitors can stow items in the quarter-operated lockers at the Pier 60 concession stand, Castelli said.

Marsh, of Clearwater, said he's moved on since the July 9 theft, which cost him about $1,000.

He got a new wallet, an upgraded iPhone, a better photo on his new driver's license.

"Glass half full," he said.

Contact Laura C. Morel at lmorel@tampabay.com or (727)445-4157.

Bay area beach-blanket thieves spike 08/01/13 [Last modified: Friday, August 2, 2013 1:11am]

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