ROMNEY, W.VA. -- Out here in the lush, placid mountains of Hampshire County, city folks from Washington and Baltimore are trickling in for the summer, hoping to leave behind the cares of their world.

Sheriff James W. Corbin Sr. knows they can't.

Hampshire County, 100 miles northwest of Washington, has recently been discovered by urbanites in search of a retreat, and a new crop of petty criminals has moved in with them. About 185 rustic "subdivisions" have sprouted across the county in recent years, Corbin says, and these clusters of vacation cabins present an inviting target for thieves.

The Sheriff's Department makes do with four deputies, and an almost-friendly jail holds about a dozen inmates. Nonetheless, burglary is becoming an increasing problem for the county and its part-time residents. With houses that go unoccupied for months and hundreds of miles of isolated roads, Corbin says, criminals can turn larceny into easy money with relatively little risk.

"We have about 17,000 people who live in this county. A few years ago everybody knew everybody else," Corbin said as he conducted a tour of Hampshire's back roads. "But now we have all these new people coming in on weekends, and you have no idea who is coming and going.

"We don't have any heavy crime, like armed robberies. But people are leaving things in their places and finding out they're not there when they come back. People come in from the city and they don't think there's going to be anything wrong here. Well, for a place our size, we've got about as many no-good people as you do in Washington."

Compared to any metropolitan area, Hampshire County's crime statistics are enviable: Corbin can sum up his June work -- 42 arrests, including 10 for some form of stealing -- in a single paragraph.

But Corbin says that many of the seasonal thieves do not get caught, and there is evidence that numerous burglaries are never reported.

"What they do is, they come in looking for something that's easy to take, hard to trace and can get them some money," Corbin said. "Stereo equipment, televisions, guns, tools, chain saws -- they take this stuff over to Winchester {Virginia} or Frederick {Maryland} and sell it for what they can get at a flea market." Hampshire County shares its northern border with Maryland and its eastern border with Virginia.

"They watch these houses and they know that a lot of people don't come up except on the weekends," Corbin said. "They force a lock, and it may be a week or two before anyone even finds out that something was stolen. One of my deputies was working a case the other day, and the victim said that his neighbor had been hit, too. That guy wouldn't even have reported it."

Even if Corbin has a suspect, enforcement can be difficult. He says that some of the thieves cross into Maryland or Virginia after a burglary, requiring him to get the cooperation of officers in those states.

And because many seasonal homes are isolated, the crimes are almost never witnessed.

Corbin claims that he has had some success dealing with the problem. This year he arrested five young men between the ages of 17 and 23 and filed a total of 12 charges of breaking and entering or larceny against them. All five were convicted and are serving jail sentences.

"We find that a lot of these people are repeat offenders who are trying to support a drug or alcohol habit," Corbin said.

"Sometimes it's kids who are breaking in mainly for vandalism. And some people just want spending money and are looking for an easy way to get it."

Hampshire County is economically depressed. There are few major employers, and many of the county's young people must travel to Winchester or Frederick for work.

But Corbin says the crimes are not motivated by genuine need.

"There's plenty of jobs over in Winchester," Corbin said.

"But some people won't work if you give them work. Sometimes people from the city get mad when something like this happens and say, 'I thought I left this behind.' There are bad folks everywhere."

Corbin said that the best defense against theft -- and one that is too seldom employed -- is for the owners of seasonal homes to take their valuables with them when they leave, especially at the end of the summer season.

"What we try and preach to these people is when they get ready to lock up for the winter . . . to take everything with them," Corbin said.

"But they don't listen.

"Some of them even hook up security systems and connect them into the jail, but they don't give us decent directions on where their places are or where to find them at home. You have to be a detective just to run them down."

Corbin said that while neither his office nor homeowners can put thieves out of business, the best defense against them is to protect valuable property.

"If a homeowner is hit once, he's probably going to be hit several times," Corbin said.

"Just don't give them anything to steal."