In a neighborhood east of Dixie Highway in West Palm Beach, an 84-year-old woman’s home was burglarized while a man spoke to her outside about buying nearby property and told her the trees surrounding her home needed to come down.
She tried telling the stranger she needed to bring groceries inside from her car. But by the time she finally ended the conversation, and the men had left, she realized more than $25,000 worth of her belongings were taken.
“They went through all her purses. They just had rummaged through things. They got my grandmother’s silver under the bed,” the woman’s daughter told The Palm Beach Post on Friday. “They cleaned out everything. It’s crazy.”
The crime is known as a “distraction burglary,” and that July 1 incident is just one of at least three that have happened in West Palm Beach since the year started. City police have not said whether they believe the burglars are the same in each case. They did not respond to several requests for comment.
While those three crimes happened at houses, authorities warn that this type of distraction crime can happen anywhere, even when grocery shopping.
“The best prevention for these types of distraction thefts is you,” said Stephanie Slater, Boynton Beach police spokeswoman. “These are the types of crimes that are crimes of opportunity. They just take a second. It happens when you’re just not paying attention.”
The 84-year-old woman wasn’t injured in the burglary and didn’t notice that her tennis bracelet and silver were stolen until hours later. Her daughter, who asked that their names and addresses not be used, said the burglars haven’t been caught.
She said her mother thinks the men followed her home from a local Publix Super Market. They may have surmised she lived alone by the food she purchased — and thought she’d be easy to distract.
While the one man spoke to her outside, it is believed a second man searched her house for items to steal. By the time their conversation was over, the other man had already driven away. The one who distracted her left on foot.
City police described the burglar as a white man between 5-foot-6 and 6 feet tall. A description of the vehicle hasn’t been provided.
A similar type of crime happened Jan. 14 at a home near Southern Boulevard and Flagler Drive. A woman was rushing to an appointment when someone knocked on her side door. The man said he was buying a vacant lot behind the home and wanted to say hello. He asked her to step outside and show him the property line, police said.
The man and woman went to the back of the home and spoke about the neighborhood. The woman later told police she continued the conversation because she didn’t want to be rude. As she started walking back to the door, however, she spotted another man holding a suitcase similar to one she owns.
“She thought this was strange but did not put it all together because she was distracted by being late for her appointment,” a city officer said in a statement to neighborhood residents.
When she went back into her home, she noticed a piece of silverware was on her table. She then noticed her silverware, among other items, was missing.
Police gave a description of the two men. One is white, about 40 years old, is 6 feet tall and has a thin build, short brown hair and a slight beard. The second man is white, about 35 years old and about 5-foot-10 and has a thin build and brown hair. He may have been wearing gloves. There may be a third man, and their vehicle may be a white SUV with black writing on the top of the windshield.
On May 8 at a home in the area of Belvedere Road and Dixie Highway, a 70-year-old woman was distracted by a man who claimed he was with a landscaping company and that debris from another home was falling in her yard.
The man told the woman he needed her written consent to enter her backyard to clean up the debris. He distracted her by asking her to re-write the letter so they both could have a copy, police said. She spotted another man coming out of one of her bedrooms, but it was too late. More than $1,000 in jewelry had already been stolen.
Police have issued descriptions of these men as well. One man is white and about 6 feet tall and has a slim build and medium-length dark hair. The second man is just under 6 feet and has dark hair. His race is unknown.
“There’s very simple steps that you can take to prevent yourself from becoming a victim,” Slater said. She said Boynton Beach police did a public service announcement years ago on these types of crimes and continues to talk about prevention tips on social media.
She recommended always locking all doors to homes. If a stranger says he or she is moving into the neighborhood, plan a meeting for another day with more people.
Distraction crimes happen at grocery stores usually when women place their purses in their shopping carts, Slater said. Also, when they reach on the shelf for an item, someone can snatch their bag. In that case, she said always to keep purses closed and on the shoulder, or keep a hand on the bag.
“If you feel that something’s not right, then call your local police department,” Slater said. “Of course we want to be neighborly and want to be polite, but in the end we want to protect our home and protect ourselves.”
— Keep all doors locked.
— Call police if you are suspicious of someone.
— Spread the word about these crimes.
— Keep personal belongings protected.
— Be aware of strangers trying to distract you.