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Thefts prompt warning

They prey on the area's most vulnerable residents, woman over 50 yearsold who often live alone in quiet subdivisions.

At least 18 times in the past three months, men who authorities believe are working together have snatched purses from women in Holiday, Tarpon Springs and New Port Richey.

The robber usually strikes as the woman walks to her home from her car after going shopping. Then he disappears in a flash, often leaving victims too stunned and scared to give authorities more than a general description.

The robbers have stolen more than cash and credit cards from these women, according to Pasco and Tarpon Springs authorities. They've run off with sentimental possessions such as photographs and address books - and a sense of safety instilled by neat homes on palm-lined, residential streets.

"We've got a couple of these ladies who lived alone who won't return to their houses," said Detective Ron Surmin of the Tarpon Springs Police Department. "They're scared."

'I never expected that'

One of the victims, a 66-year-old Holiday woman, says she won't get out of her car anymore if she sees a strange person in her neighborhood. Her name is being withheld for her protection.

"I make sure there's nobody in the street when I get out of the car," said the woman, who was robbed Jan. 31 by a man she saw walking by her house as she drove in from a friend's home. "I was kind of shocked. I never expected that."

The robberies began in December, and all but one have been in the Holiday and Tarpon Springs area. Two of the Pasco victims suffered minor injuries, including one woman who was hit in the face and knocked to the ground. But most of the robberies have been so quick and surprising that the robber snatched the purse and ran off into the darkness before the victim realized what happened, authorities said.

Detective Gary Kling of the Pasco County Sheriff's Office believes that the robbers have followed the women home from shopping and waited until the victims were between their car and house before striking. In some cases, the victims remember seeing unfamiliar people walking or driving near their homes shortly before the robberies.

Sheriff's Office spokesman Jon Powers warned people to be aware of

suspicious people.

"If you think somebody's following you, the last place you want to go is home," he said. "Go to what we call a safe place: a busy convenience store, a busy gas station. Somewhere (where) there's a lot of people around, and call us."

Vague descriptions

The Holiday woman said she saw a man walk in front of her home as she pulled into her driveway about 9:15 p.m. But the man had walked past her home and she wasn't worried. Then he turned and ran up to the woman as she was getting ready to unlock her front door.

"He slammed me into the door with one hand and grabbed my purse with the other hand," she said. "He turned around and ran so fast, he was out in the middle of the street and all I saw was the back of him."

That's the problem with getting more than general descriptions, Surmin said.

"It's dark. They never see these people coming and they're really taken by surprise," he said. "They just see the back of a shadow taking off."

With the seven Tarpon Springs incidents, Surmin believes the robber was waiting for the victims at their homes. "They did not see anybody coming or hear anybody coming."

The robberies take place in the dark, usually before 9 p.m. when most subdivision security patrols begin, Kling said. The robbers have taken about $1,000 and credit cards in the Pasco robberies, he said.

Tarpon Springs police did not have totals, but said aside from a pre-Christmas robbery of a woman with $600, the women's purses have contained $25 to $50.

The robberies began in early December, and the most recent was Feb. 7 in Tarpon Springs. Kling also thinks the same people are connected to about 10 thefts of purses from cars and homes in the Holiday area.

In a Pasco robbery of a 67-year-old woman Dec. 27 at the Colonial Hills subdivision, the robber tried to use an automatic teller machine card the next day that he found in the woman's purse, Kling said. The machine took a picture of the man as he unsuccessfully tried to punch in the access number.

The description fit one of the three descriptions Pasco has compiled of the robbers: A white man 18 to 25 years old, 5-foot-10 to 6 feet, 140 to 150 pounds, medium-length brown hair.

A white man 16 to 20 years old, 5-foot-6 to 5-foot-8, slim build.

A black man 25 to 30 years old, 6 feet tall, 155 to 165 pounds.

Victims in Tarpon Springs who have been able to identify their assailants said the man was black and in his late teens to early 20s, Surmin said.

Anyone with information is asked to call the Pasco County Sheriff's Office at 847-5878 or the Tarpon Springs Police Department at 938-2840.