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Police Say Rent Drop Thefts Still Strong
It’s a Fighting Back story involving stolen checks and money orders from area apartment complexes. We discovered this story by digging through court documents in Williamson County. What we found was how Austin area police helped the U.S. Homeland Security Department break up a nationwide crime ring which stole millions of dollars from hundreds of people. At least three arrests have been made, including the alleged ringleader.
Police say rent drop box theft is one of the hardest crimes to prosecute because there are often no witnesses and no surveillance. They say the theft rates have remained steady and say the public and the apartment complexes themselves are the key to putting an end to it.
The rent drop box is one of the first places Donna Roberts and tens of thousands of Austin-area renters go at the first of every month.
"Can't be late, need the roof over the head,” said Roberts. She says she uses the drop boxes “99 percent of the time" due to her work schedule.
Her complex was one of several hit several months ago by the organized crime ring out of Houston.
"I don't think there's really a difference in what's going on as far as the rash (of thefts),” said Sgt. Robert Hester of Austin Police Department’s Burglary Unit. "A lot of people arrested, and a lot of people filed on, we still have the same type of crime being committed and it's being committed by a wide variety of individuals."
Sgt. Hester says when some criminals get put behind bars, others take their place.
"It's all across town, any of the complexes,” said Sgt. Hester. “It’ll change almost like the wind, it'll move from one spot to another. As soon as you identify a hot spot it moves.”
How they get the money depends on the drop box design and size. It can range from reaching in to grab the checks, to the most common method, “fishing,” often using some sort of wire with an adhesive at the end. Court documents show the Houston-based gang used “a toilet snake with a rat trap on the end”.
"Trying to teach the businesses how to secure their property so they're not victimized is the most that we can do," said Sgt. Hester, when asked what the police department is doing to stop the thefts.
An employee at a complex hit by the thieves told us they’ve redesigned the drop box to make the slot smaller and haven’t had a problem since. Your best bet?
"I would hand it to a person," said Sgt. Hester.
Some complexes we spoke with are now making that method, and paying over the Internet, the only options, some in response to the thefts.
Still, some residents like Roberts believe the redesigned drop boxes are safe.
"I think it's perfectly safe,” said Roberts. “I don't have any worries about it."
Police also say they’ve seen thefts in drop boxes in office buildings and clinics, though these are less common. Sgt. Hester says surveillance video broke open the organized crime gang case and recommends it to businesses who decide to keep drop boxes.”
An official with the Austin Apartment Association told us she wasn’t aware of a trend in apartments making changes because of thefts but said in general, more and more payments are moving online.
By Adam Bennett