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Published Apr. 29, 2013

The young man said he wanted to trim branches and overgrown shrubs in Mary Porter's backyard. Then, he said he wanted to spray for spiders.

But all he really wanted was her jewelry.

Before the 84-year-old St. Petersburg woman realized it, the man and his partner were running out her front door carrying her gold wedding band and an antique platinum diamond ring worth about $29,000. They snatched the items right off her hands.

"It was well planned out," Porter said of the Wednesday theft at her home in the 8200 block of 33rd Avenue N. "I guess I wasn't smart enough to pick up on it."

Police say she and her husband, Archie, 95, were the latest victims of an elaborate con targeting older residents. In each of the seven reported thefts so far this year, the same men have approached homeowners claiming to be doing yard work, pest control or some other task before fleeing with rings, bracelets and other valuables.

The situation seemed fishy from the start, Porter said. While she ventured with the younger man to her back yard, the older man made his way inside the house and talked to her husband. She thinks the men might have been talking to each other on portable radios.

In the back yard, the younger man made a remark about spiders lingering in the brush. Porter saw no spiders.

He began to spray a liquid on the ground. Then he sprayed Porter's hand. It felt like water, she said, but he hustled her inside, insisting they needed milk to neutralize the "acid."

In her kitchen, the younger man went for the refrigerator, poured milk into a bowl and placed her hands in it. He told her to take off her rings. When she did, he scooped them up. An instant later, both men were gone.

Porter called police and learned she wasn't the first victim.

Five of the thefts have happened within the same square mile, in the area between 22nd Avenue N and 34th Avenue N, police said. The cons escalated in March when police learned the duo was impersonating city workers.

The younger man is described as about 30 years old, between 5 feet 6 and 5 feet 8, with a medium build, black hair and a slight mustache. The older man is described as in his late 40s to early 50s, 5 feet 6 to 5 feet 8, with a heavy build. The spoke Spanish to each other, Porter said.

They drove away in a gray or silver minivan, possibly a Chrysler or a Honda, with tinted windows and no rims, police said.

Porter said she hopes she gets her rings back. She also hopes to see the men in court.

"I'd tell them to go out and get a job and quit doing this to people," she said. "It just makes me very sad."

Police want to hear from anyone else who might have been approached by the men. Anyone with information can call Detective Karl Sauer at (727) 893-4904.