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Making Change at the Jewelry Store

By John Kelly
Tuesday, April 12, 2005; Page C11

The thief strolled into Westfield Shoppingtown Annapolis unnoticed. He (or maybe she) walked past the Piercing Pagoda and Lady Foot Locker. Perhaps he grabbed an egg roll at Panda Express and went over his criminal plan, probing it for weaknesses. Convinced that it was foolproof -- it had worked before, hadn't it? -- he wiped the duck sauce from his lips, then patted his pockets to make sure he had what he needed.

And then he walked into Bailey, Banks & Biddle and asked one of the helpful salespeople if he could look at a round two-carat diamond. He rolled the $31,000 gem in his hands.

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"Hmmmm," I imagine him saying, handing it back. "It's nice. But I'm just not sure. Thanks anyway."

And then he walked out.

On March 20, a Bailey, Banks & Biddle employee performing a routine test of the diamonds in stock discovered that one of them wasn't what it seemed.

Okay, this criminal didn't have the panache of Cary Grant in "To Catch a Thief." But whoever walked off with the diamond, leaving a near-worthless fake in its place, hasn't been caught.

Representatives from Zale Corp., the jewelry giant that owns Bailey, Banks & Biddle, declined to comment on the case, beyond saying that it is working with police and is offering a $2,500 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction.

This method of lifting valuable gems and rings is so common that experts in the jewelry business have a name for it: "the switch." Not as violent as "the smash and grab," the switch requires a modicum of skill not seen in "the sneak," where jewelry is just lifted.

"You can have customers who use sleight of hand and are able to switch a ring or switch a stone because they are very clever with their hands," said John Kennedy, president of the Jewelers' Security Alliance, a nonprofit group that advises jewelers on preventing crime.

Such thieves do their homework, right down to scrutinizing the paper or plastic tags that are attached to a jewelry store's items. They'll attach a facsimile tag to a cubic zirconia ring, then make the switch, sometimes with an accomplice posing as a second customer to distract the salesperson.

Why?

"Obviously, diamonds are very difficult to trace and identify," said Jeff Mills, vice president of claims at Jewelers Mutual Insurance Co. of Neenah, Wis. They're small, easy to carry and, oh, worth a lot of money, too.

(Mills said thieves employ all sorts of methods. "We've seen them swallow the diamond when running out of the store. Police have to wait until they pass to recover it." Talk about a diamond in the rough.)

Sgt. Shawn Urbas of the Anne Arundel County police said there have been no arrests in the Bailey, Banks & Biddle case. The investigation is continuing. The detectives on the case have ruled out the possibility that it was an inside job.


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