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DANGER PROWLS THE PARKING LOT THEFTS FROM STORE PATRONS ARE INCREASINGLY COMMON

IT WAS A sunny afternoon this spring in the parking lot of a Buffalo supermarket.
An elderly couple had just finished shopping. The husband, 85, drove his car up to the entrance, leaving the key in the ignition while he got out to help his 80-year-old wife.

A polite young man offered assistance. He carefully loaded the groceries onto the front seat.

Then, suddenly, the young man raced around the car, jumped in and zoomed out of the parking lot. The passenger-side door, still open, knocked the woman to the ground.

When the damaged car turned up, everything in it had been stolen, including the groceries and a purse with a little money in it plus credit cards, identification and keys.

The woman, whose name we won't use here, for her protection, was not seriously hurt. But neither the purse -- nor the perpetrator -- was ever found.

This dramatic story, unfortunately, isn't an exceptional one.

It is another chapter in an unending saga of crime against shoppers, a story that any retail employee, any law enforcement official, any aware consumer knows all too well.

Such crimes seem to be on the upswing, some police and supermarket retailers say, and they are spreading from traditional high-crime areas into the suburbs.

The story above may differ from the usual in the amount of property involved. The car suffered $1,000 worth of damage; many incidents are simple purse snatchings or what the police call "purse dips."

But it is typical in other ways:

The incident involved elderly people. They are the most frequent victims of these crimes, police say.

It happened on the first of the month -- when pension and Social Security checks come out. The crimes are most common then, police and market spokesmen agree. They also happen frequently at holiday times,
when people are most likely to be carrying more cash than usual.

The thief was never caught.

Buffalo police say they have no firm idea of how many thefts occur in supermarket parking lots -- or, for that matter, all retail parking lots.

But a look at Buffalo police 911 reports gives a sense of the scope. For example, at one South Buffalo supermarket in March, six examples of this type of crime were called in.

Multiply that by every supermarket in the Buffalo area, figure in the proportion of unreported crimes -- as high as 20 percent, police say -- and it's easy to see that these crimes are far from unusual.

"It's not an outrageous problem," said Capt. Harold Litwin, of Buffalo Police Precinct 5 on the West Side, but he agrees it's a troublesome one.

Such crimes may go unreported, police say, because victims are embarrassed or feel that nothing will be done.

"There has definitely been an increase within the last two years," said Mary Ellen Burris, a spokeswoman for Wegmans.

The problem is moving out to the suburbs. Earlier this year, East Aurora supermarkets suffered from a rash of wallet-stealing incidents -- mostly purses that were left unattended in shopping carts.

In other suburbs, the numbers grow constantly.

"We are seeing more of this type of thing in our area. It's a serious problem," said Capt. Donald P. Kraus of the Amherst Police Department.

"Part of the reason is that the area is growing so quickly," he added. "I've been here for 30 years and have seen the population grow from 30,000 to over 120,000. Back then, we didn't even see one instance of shoplifting a day."

Violent crimes, says Krau, have not increased, but larceny and vandalism have.

"It's tough for supermarket people," he says. "Years ago, nobody would have thought of hiring security for a parking lot. Now almost everybody does."

Sometimes it seems that the criminals act on the spur of the moment.

"Kids, maybe, who want cash quickly," said Capt. Joseph O'Shei of Precinct 17 in North Buffalo. "They operate in empty parking lots, grab an unattended purse while the shopper is unloading grocery bags."

Then they run.

"The first thing they do is ditch the purse. We might find it next to a railroad track."

Sometimes, O'Shei says, the thieves don't even bother removing credit cards because "they would have trouble using them."

Other crimes against shoppers are obviously the work of professionals.

North Buffalo retailers know of a man and woman who work supermarket aisles as a team -- one partner asking the victim for help in reading a label, perhaps, to divert her, while the other grabs the wallet out of an open purse.

Often the customer doesn't even realize that the money is gone until she gets to the cash register. The empty wallet is found behind groceries on a shelf.

Sometimes the approach is menacing. In large parking lots last year, there was a rash of mobile robberies. As the shopper started to walk into the market, a car would drive by and a passenger would lean out to snatch the purse from her arm.

"You feel such terrible concern," says one supermarket operator. "Even though you may have no legal responsibility, you hate to see your customers intimidated."

In recent years, most supermarkets have hired security guards for their stores and, when necessary, for their lots.

Some of the guards are uniformed; other operate undercover. Some stores use electronic devices, such as closed-circuit television.

Most stores have tried to teach their employees to recognize suspicious customers.

Bells, for example, encourages its employees to help customers carry groceries out to parking lots at night.

Tops puts warning announcements on its public address system.

Wegmans, when incidents mount up, will print newspaper ads reminding consumers to take care.

Some stores post warning signs. All try to make sure parking lot lighting is adequate.

But the problem also remains a personal responsibility, supermarket executives say.

"My advice to every shopper," says Ralph Kushner of the Great Arrow Super Duper, "is the same advice I'd give anyone in my own family.

"Keep your eyes open. Don't daydream and don't lose sight of your valuables."

"Customers should keep their purses with them at all times," says Ms. Burris of Wegmans, and "they should keep those purses closed."

Also, supermarket people say, suspicious-looking people should be reported to the management. And, it goes without saying, all incidents should be reported so that patterns can be discerned.

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