It will probably be a warm spring or summer day when he shows up at the door. He might offer to seal the driveway for next to nothing, claiming that he and his partner just want to relieve themselves of the leftover sealant from the driveway job they just finished down the street. Or, he might offer to paint the house for a price so irresistibly low, only a fool would pass it up. But as the days roll by, one unexpected glitch rises after another, and it is not long before the unbeatably low-cost paint job has morphed into an exorbitantly expensive, botched-job that now requires someone else to come repair the damage.
"The old saying is true — if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is," said Officer Erica Slaight, a Fairfax County Police Crime Prevention Officer at the Reston District Station who regularly patrols the Great Falls area.
Warmer temperatures are starting to arrive, and with them comes blooming flowers, growing green grass and solicitors knocking on doors. Since many solicitors are not what they appear, the Fairfax County crime prevention officers of the Reston District Station are taking steps to educate the residents of Great Falls about the red flags and warning signs that can be an indication of unscrupulous intentions.
Slaight and Detective Joseph Blieka, a Fairfax County Police officer from the Criminal Investigation section of the Reston District Station, invited local residents to a special “Burglary Seminar” on Thursday, April 26 at the Great Falls Library. In the seminar, Slaight and Blieka discussed two criminal groups that have repeatedly targeted the Great Falls community in the past — European burglary groups and scam artists, or so-called "Travelers." Although notices about the free presentation were posted in local newspapers and on the community e-mail network Neighbors International, only six residents attended. However, those that did attend said they found the information provided at the seminar to be extremely helpful and interesting.
EUROPEAN BURGLARY groups are of particular concern to local police officers. Blieka said he has been following and apprehending the members of these professional crime groups for the last 16 years, and estimates they have stolen millions of dollars of property in that time span.
"They're really hard to catch," said Blieka. "They're professional criminals and they are pretty sophisticated."
Still, Blieka said that much progress has been made in recent years, with vigilant police work resulting in the incarceration of members of these rings in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
"We used to see these guys come around here 15-20 times in a year, but in the last few years, it's gone down to just two or three or four times a year," said Blieka.
Blieka and Slaight said professional European burglars are often related as they are typically born into families rooted in professional crime. They are highly trained and work together to complete jobs quickly and efficiently. Slaight said that in a typical European burglar scenario, "the male usually stays with the vehicle while the female perpetrates the burglary."
"So if you're out in your yard working, most commonly the female will knock on the door or ring the doorbell because they're testing to see how well you're paying attention," said Slaight.
Should the homeowner answer the door, Slaight said the female burglar then provides an excuse to enter the home.
"She might say she needs a glass of water, or that she needs to use the phone because she is locked out," said Slaight. "While she is doing this, a different female might enter through another door."
Slaight said professionals of this caliber have no difficulty in absconding with thousands of dollars worth of jewelry and personal effects in just a few minutes.
"They usually store the stolen items in what's called a 'booster apron,' which is something that is worn underneath their clothing, or they put the items in a pillowcase," said Slaight.
Once the thieves have what they want, they exit the area promptly. According to Blieka, the need for a quick getaway is the reason why homes on corner lots and homes located near major roadways are targeted the most frequently. After they have left the scene of the crime, the criminals usually relieve themselves of the stolen property as soon as possible, shipping it to New York or to Europe.
"They are an organized crime group, so they have organized crime connections," said Blieka.
Slaight and Blieka urge residents to be aware of any unusual activity in their neighborhoods, and advise them to report suspicious persons and vehicles to the police as soon as possible. Both officers said the vigilance of local citizens has been the key component in catching professional burglars in the past. Slaight often hears neighbors of victims say they saw the suspects and their vehicle and felt uneasy, but did not contact the police because they did not want to “waste their time” or be perceived as “nosy neighbors.”
"Waste my time," said Slaight. "And it's actually not a waste of my time because that's what I'm here for ... if you have to ask yourself if you should call the police, then the answer is yes. If you have to ask yourself that question, then the only thing you have to make a decision on at that point, is whether to call 911 or the non-emergency police number."
IN ADDITION to European burglary groups, Slaight and Blieka caution residents to be on the lookout for scam artists that show up in the warmer months in the guise of door-to-door solicitors. Slaight said such con artists tend to target affluent neighborhoods and the elderly, and often appear on doorsteps with promises of paint jobs and driveway paving services at rock-bottom prices. Those homeowners unfortunate enough to be lured in by the alleged bargain soon find that their low-cost job is riddled with “unforeseen problems” that send the original estimate soaring skywards.
Slaight and Blieka said they offered the burglary seminar in the hope that raising resident awareness will serve as a preemptive strike against these professional burglary groups.
"They generally come around during the spring and summer, so rather than being re-active to them, we want to be pro-active and try and stop them before they start," said Slaight.
Blieka added that professional criminals will stop seeking out homes in Great Falls if the community becomes a risky target to them.
"They're never going to stop, so our best bet is to lock as many of them up as possible so they start going somewhere else," he said.