Detectives Believe Statewide Rash of Purse Thefts Connected

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STOCKTON--

They are coming. They are coming over the counter, or under it, crawling on hands and knees. They might say they have to use the bathroom. Or maybe they'll just rearrange the place.

In the end, their goal is always the same- to get where no one is watching.

But they aren't trying to get there alone.

"A distraction theft is where you typically have multiple suspects, and they will try to lure the shop owner or the clerk away from the area of something they want stolen," Detective Scott Schwamb of the Fresno County Sheriff's Department told FOX40.

In the last year, we've seen distraction theft over and over again. We've seen it In Isleton, Salida and Stockton, but thieves aren't using distraction to steal merchandise from local stores, they are stealing the purses and personal belongings of shop keepers.

"I had a diamond. A big one," one store owner told us.

"She didn't even go to the bathroom," said another out of frustration when a woman got in her back room by saying she needed to use the restroom.

"Really I feel like, 'Oh My Goodness,'" said the most recent victim, a salon owner in Stockton.

But we started to notice something else these crimes have in common, not just the stuff they are swiping, or how they are swiping it, but who they are.

"During the research our investigators actually found the stories on FOX40," said Stockton Police Spokesman Joe Silva.

They are hitting different stores, in different towns, with the same tricks. And those sticky fingers from one crime to the next seem to belong to the same women too.

Still even then we couldn't guess how widespread this crime spree is. From Los Angeles County to Sacramento County, law enforcement now believes this group of suspects is responsible for 38 thefts in California in the last year alone.

"I would bet that something like this is not drug users looking to feed a habit. These are people who have a plan, and they are looking for financial gain," Detective Schwamb said.

We traveled down to Fresno County, where there is a cluster of these crimes, to meet with Detective Schwamb.

"There's been some talk of a multiagency- I don't know if you'd call it a task force- but having some meetings where people from multiple agencies can come together and show everything they have to each other," Schwamb said.

And that just may be how these thieves finally get caught. But until then, the focus is stopping them.

And that's where a little information can make all the difference.

"Something just didn't look right," Esmerelda Guerrero told FXO40.

Even as we were working in Fresno County, another report surfaced. It was another salon hit by the distraction thieves.

But this time the salon's owner, Guerrero was able to cut them off.

"They left running," she told us.

She had heard of the crime spree and knew what to look for. And more importantly, she knew not to look away- not to fall for the distraction.

So what do you look for? It's a group of four or five women. There are lots of grainy surveillance images of their faces.

Another common element is the big bag they carry. They stuff smaller purses inside of it once they swipe them.

And given how often they've struck, this posse of purse snatchers may be in it for more than just the cash now. They may be hooked on the feeling of victimizing shop keepers, capitalizing on good customer service to do bad.

So chances are, they will strike again, and soon.

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