Theft ring targeting distracted shoppers

SAN DIEGO - Authorities are warning the public of a group of thieves running an elaborate scheme across San Diego County that targets unsuspecting women while they shop.

San Diego police detectives say the group has been targeting women at Whole Foods grocery stores in Hillcrest, La Jolla and Del Mar since 2011.

Using stores' surveillance video from six different cases, detectives have identified three people linked to the thefts. In the footage, the bandits are seen taking wallets from purses that sit unattended in a shopping cart, as victims are often distracted by the thieves or are busy perusing grocery store aisles.

"They distract the customer, then reach into the female customer's purse and steal the wallet, leaving the purse intact so the customer doesn't know anything was taken," explained SDPD Lt. Kevin Mayer. "Immediately upon exiting the store, they go to a bank and try to get cash advances on their credit cards and purchase high-end jewelry and high-end purses."

According to police, the thieves have racked up bills of up to $500,000 from nearby banks and shopping plazas, like the Fashion Valley Mall.

Police told 10News they're also targeting women who look like the thieves themselves to use their identities when cashing in their loot.

"The third suspect most likely looks similar to the victim and that person is then taking the identification of the stolen credit cards to a bank or a department store," Mayer added.

Det. Bernie Piceno with SDPD's Financial Crimes Unit has been following the men and women seen in the surveillance videos since 2011. Piceno believes the couple is part of a major theft ring spanning Southern California and southern Nevada, hitting up groceries chains like Ralphs, Trader Joe's and Whole Foods, as well as retail stores like Target.

Piceno told 10News the black male and white female seen in most of the videos are from the Los Angeles area and believed to be the ringleaders of the operation.

Mayer said they're not the only ones preying on distracted shoppers.

"It appears we have several different crews working in San Diego doing the exact same thing," Mayer said.

Mayer explained that investigators are still working to compile surveillance videos to release to the public to help find them.

Police are warning women to watch and secure their purses when shopping, and making sure wallets are not left in plain sight.

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