Female team targets local vintage store employees' purses and wallets
A series of recent thefts targeting Austin's vintage stores has shaken the boutique community, normally a refuge for easygoing customer-relations and lax security. The suspects two women working as a team have not targeted cash registers or merchandise but the boutique employees' purses and wallets. As of this week, they are suspected of at least five reported thefts across the city within three weeks, at a combined loss of more than $5,000.
The boutique bandits, apparently the same two African-American women, have repeatedly used the same technique. One, usually the taller of the two, who wears her hair in a short bob, engages the store's often lone employee while her companion, a shorter, pregnant woman with tight curls and visible tattoos, slips behind the counter. The first woman will ask the employee to get an item that is difficult to reach, creating a distraction that allows her accomplice to locate and steal the employee's wallet. "It's weird to say, but they were nice, well-spoken people," said Karen Jo Vennes, owner of Populuxe and one of the first to report the pair of suspects. "They could probably fool anyone."
On June 15, Vennes was working alone when the women stole her purse, credit cards, $1,000 in cash, and the store's checkbook. An hour later, Vennes' bank called, and she was stunned. Mysterious charges on her debit card had piled up in less than 45 minutes. "I felt like a doofus," she said. "They were brazen and very organized, and they duped me."
In the next couple of weeks, similar thefts occurred at Shiki, Prototype Vintage Design, Feathers Boutique, and Room Service South, with attempted but unsuccessful thefts reported at other vintage stores from North Loop to South Lamar. Victims speculate that the suspects may be using the "Vintage Around Town" guide compiled by Room Service's LuCretia Sisk as a convenient way to choose their next targets, and in at least one case, the women were apparently accompanied by a male accomplice. Both Sisk and Feathers' Emily Hoover have been active in warning other vintage-store owners to be on the lookout.
Though these were initially presumed to be isolated crimes, a deeper connection was revealed after $2,000 in fraudulent charges were made at a local Sam's Club. Those purchases were made using stolen checks from Populuxe, credited to Prototype's stolen ID card, and the checks were forged with Hoover's name, giving the store-owners documentation that the thefts were made by the same suspects. "I had to call Populuxe, and they had already reported my name to the police," Hoover said. "Imagine if she [Vennes] hadn't found out, and someone had come and cuffed me in my own store."
Although store-owners are certain that their cases are connected, APD investigators are still treating each aspect of the crimes separately, with each boutique assigned several different detectives to handle both the theft and fraud charges. APD is working to coordinate information among them. "Right now we're trying to link a bunch of cases this goes beyond four or five stores and we have one administrator working on that," said Detective Shane Lee, assigned to the Populuxe case. "You can either do shoddy police work and get it done quickly, or you can do it right."
In the meantime, Austin's vintage-store community has been quick to take its own initiatives. Hoover sent out a MySpace bulletin last week that has since been reposted dozens of times, with several new victims coming forward as a result. Larger stores, such as HEB and ExxonMobil, where the suspects have turned their stolen credit cards into reusable (and untraceable) gift cards, are cooperating and offering investigators security camera footage that reportedly shows the perpetrators.
For the boutique owners, however, there is more at stake than simply capturing the criminals responsible. The experience has left many of them feeling both vulnerable and used. "When you're a young, small-business owner you're very trusting," Hoover said. "The fact that they're exploiting us for being nice, and yes, admittedly a little naive that's what hurts."
Hoover, who had both her wallet and the store's custom-made sign stolen in the same weekend, says it has been especially painful. The cramped, nook-filled spaces where she and others can afford to set up shop allow criminals such as these to operate, as does their minimal staff and eagerness to please. In most cases, the victims said they even resisted their initial misgivings about the suspects' intentions. "We try to give everyone the benefit of the doubt and treat everyone equally," Prototype's Audrey San Miguel said. "It's sad when you feel that thing in your gut that's telling you, 'Whoa, follow these girls.' So you do the opposite and overcompensate."
Larger stores can respond with increased security or additional employees, but that's not an affordable option for most of these businesses. Only Populuxe has made any noticeable changes, closing off its second room and hiring an extra counter-person. For Feathers and Prototype, relatively new operations, adding employees or a security system is simply not feasible. The thefts are yet another reminder that it's becoming tougher for independent local stores to thrive. "There's a smaller-town mentality [in Austin stores]," said Room Service's Janet Keeble. "But when things like this happen, things have to change."
As of press time, the suspects remain at large. Alerted by Hoover's bulletin, employees of several stores have spotted them and have thwarted potential thefts, but the women haven't been detained. Detective Lee says it's only a matter of time and says the sudden crime wave shouldn't raise a general alarm about the future of the boutiques.
"Crime follows a fad or fashion just like everything else," Lee said.