The burglar uses a swift shoulder blow or a crowbar to break down front doors. He ransacks the apartments, takes what he likes and, in an extra measure of disrespect, drops some cigarette butts on the floor before he leaves with a suitcase full of computers, jewelry and sometimes personal hygiene items.

Police believe that the thief, possibly acting alone, is responsible for 15 break-ins since May in a five-block area of Laurel. They say he is familiar with the area and at times covers other apartments' peepholes with tape to prevent neighbors from watching him work.

"This is very unusual," said city spokesman Jim Collins. "It shows a pattern."

The targeted neighborhood is near the Laurel Lakes shopping center in the area of Bowsprit Lane and Vista Drive, Collins said. The burglar generally strikes in the afternoon when no one is home.

Laurel, a city of 21,000 residents, is part of Prince George's County but has its own police force, which investigates nonfatal crimes such as burglaries. Crime in the city has increased almost 20 percent from this time last year, with violent crime showing the biggest jump, at 54 percent, according to police data.

Violent crime is also up across the county, but Laurel does not have the homicide problems of some other areas of Prince George's. Seventy-four people have been slain in the county this year, but the last homicide in Laurel was in 2003, Collins said.

Still, with property crime up 14 percent from this time last year, the rash of burglaries has police concerned.

"We are coming up with different ways to combat the crime," Collins said. "We're beefing up patrols, using undercover officers, educating the public."

Collins said the Laurel Lakes burglar is familiar with the area and probably watches residents as they come and go.

"This is not a person who is quiet or discreet," Collins said. "He seems to know when somebody is not at home."

One victim, who did not want to be named for fear the burglar would revisit her apartment, said the thief took her DVD player, birth certificate, car title and pearl-lined Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority pin. In exchange, he left her two cigarette butts and a plastic cup.

Some of her neighbors who have also been victimized said the burglar rifled through their drawers and made off with personal hygiene items.

Collins said police are looking for a suspect in his twenties with dreadlocks. A man fitting that description was seen trying to open several apartment doors in the neighborhood a few weeks ago. A witness also saw him looking under doormats for spare keys.

Police say residents need to take care to secure their homes, especially when the neighborhood is being targeted by thieves.

"Some people are not locking their doors," Collins said, "and many are guilty of not putting a deadbolt on."