Vacant homes easy prey for tidy appliance thieves

Claremont realtor Bob Schreiber of Curtis Real Estate was in the middle of showing a north Claremont listing to prospective buyers one afternoon in late June when something struck him as odd.

“What happened to the dishwasher and the stove?” he recalled of his reaction in an account of the event a week later.

Both appliances had been taken from the Baughman Avenue home with not so much as a scratch left behind. There had been no sign of forced entry into the property, no broken glass or burglary tools and no other item out of place. The only visible pieces to the bizarre puzzle other than the missing appliances were an open gate, a screen door just barely popped out of place and a strange navy blue van seen in front of the residence by a neighbor a day before the disappearance.

“It was such a neat job. Very professionally done,” Mr. Schreiber said. “It looked like they swept up after because nothing was disturbed.”

The mystery of the vanishing appliances is not a solitary incident in Claremont. Mr. Schreiber’s listing is just one of several vacant homes in Claremont hit by a recent burglary spree, all featuring crooks with an inclination for acquiring home appliances. Within a week of Mr. Schreiber’s incident, 2 other Claremont homes were targeted. Losses included another stove, a refrigerator and a television set. No suspects have been identified in any of the burglaries.

“It’s almost as though they had a list of things they were looking for,” Mr. Schreiber speculated.

Realtors are finding themselves caught in a tricky catch-22. Publicly advertising the listings is necessary, but by doing so it opens up the door for burglars to have a sneak preview at homes they intend to rob.

“It’s a known risk that you have to take because people need to see [the listing],” Mr. Schreiber recognized.  “We try to caution our sellers about these things, but there is not much that can be done.”

Mr. Schreiber’s assertions of “professional-style” burglarizing may be correct as authorities investigate possible burglary rings in other cities throughout neighboring regions. Two men were arrested in the city of Palmdale last month connected to appliance thefts in at least 11 homes throughout LA and Ventura counties. Authorities believe the thieves are part of a larger home-appliance theft ring. The men arrested had a list of addresses for 51 vacant properties and keys to real estate lock boxes.

The recent chain of appliance burglaries has now made its way to Claremont, though no connection has been drawn to the burglary ring affecting Los Angeles and Ventura counties. It’s a crime trend unlike any the city has seen before, according to Lieutenant Shelly Vander Veen, and one  that appears to be specifically directed at vacant property.

“Some [vacant homes] are very noticeable by the upkeep of the yard. Just by driving around you can tell what is vacant,” said Lt. Vander Veen, noting the easy pickings for a criminal looking to steal.

Recent crime trends, however, lead police to suspect that these burglars may also be “using other resources to locate vacant homes” like open houses and real estate data bases such as the Multiple Listings Service, or MLS. Mr. Schreiber’s listing, like many others, can be identified on sites like the MLS, a free search engine used by realtors to search and post homes up for sale.

“When you have pictures of everything on the MLS, they can go on any number of sites, like Redfin and Trulia,” Mr. Schreiber said. “Then everyone has access.”

As a result, Mr. Schreiber noted that many realtors turn to “online appointments only,” but even that runs its risks.

“You still have to show the house,” he said, whether in private appointments or open houses.

It was at one such Claremont open house that fellow Curtis Real Estate agent Maureen Mills speculates her listing was targeted. The thief or thieves reportedly entered the home on Tulane Road by prying open a window screen and entering through the window. Ms. Mills presumes that, because of their age, the home’s appliances were left alone. Only the television was taken.

“It was just flooded with people,” Ms. Mills said of the open house she hosted the day before the theft took place. She wondered how the thieves would have otherwise known about the television. “It’s just sort of questionable in my mind. How else would they have known [about the television]?”

Though not specifically citing Ms. Mills’ property, police believe thieves might be using open houses as a chance to unlock a door or window and coming back to perform the crime. Though the reason Ms. Mills’ listing was broken into is unknown, for her, one thing is certain: she will no longer be showing her listings on MLS as vacant and will advise others to do the same.

“If they can break into the house, they can break into the MLS and get more information. We have to watch carefully,” Ms. Mills said.  

In light of the recent Claremont burglaries, Ms. Mills suggests erring on the side of caution when it comes to real estate listings.

“There is not much we can do but give as little information as possible,” Ms. Mills advised. “Don’t mention that the house isn’t being lived in and, as far as open houses, maybe we can’t have them the way we used to until this blows over. It’s a really difficult situation.”

—Beth Hartnett



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