In the surveillance video, the three women were dressed the part — with exercise clothes and sneakers — and asked the front desk clerk about classes at the Yoga Heights studio near the District’s Petworth neighborhood.
It seemed like a typical interaction at the time, but according to the video and D.C. police, two of the women distracted the clerk while the other stole $110, gift cards valued at nearly $500 and credit cards from unsecured cubbies in the studio’s lobby.
It’s a scheme much like others that have played out on at least seven occasions over the past three months at yoga studios in Northwest Washington, according to D.C. police reports. No one has been injured in the incidents.
In most cases, one person or a group of people enter a studio and ask about classes or register for a class, often while someone else distracts a front desk clerk and steals valuables from unlocked cubbies.
D.C. police said they are investigating thefts from yoga studios in Georgetown, Dupont Circle, Petworth and Shaw. Investigators say it’s not clear if any of the cases are connected or involved the same people. Their advice: Secure your belongings and valuables.
Yoga studio owners and teachers said they have warned patrons about leaving anything but sneakers in unsecured cubbies, but many don’t heed the advice. They worry that their studios are seen as easy targets for thefts of wallets, credit cards and other valuables.
“Yoga studios are supposed to be safe places,” said Andrea Messina, a teacher at Lighthouse Yoga Center in Petworth.
The business hasn’t become a target of the thefts, but it has posted signs to remind patrons to bring valuables with them during class.
“So many people come to yoga to recover from trauma or because they’re otherwise struggling with something emotionally,” Messina said. “Having to post warnings about robbery kind of undoes a little bit of what we’re trying to do in the first place.”
Some studio owners have considered increasing security measures, such as installing cameras and hiring more staff to monitor the front desk, but worry about the additional expense. Installing lockers often isn’t an option because many studios have small spaces.
Jess Pierno, who owns the Yoga Heights studio near Petworth, said her studio has been hit three times in the past six months by thieves feigning interest in classes.
“It’s frustrating,” she said. “We are struggling between how do we stay as an open and welcoming place versus having to have a buzzer at the door and feeling closed off and secured.”
During an April 8 theft at Yoga Heights, three women can be seen on surveillance video entering the studio, then chatting with a receptionist. Pierno said they asked the employee about renting space for a baby shower and appeared interested in classes. Pierno said the women were the only people to enter the studio during that time.
In the video, one woman walks to the unsecured cubbies where customers keep their belongings as the other two women distract the employee. The woman appears to take a wallet. Shortly after the theft, Pierno said, some credit cards stolen from her studio were used at a CVS store.
In another case, a customer’s bank card was stolen and $2,000 was withdrawn from an account. Pierno said she is likely to replace the cubbies with benches.
Thieves also have used other tactics.
According to a D.C. police report, on March 22, a man registered for a class at Down Dog Yoga studio on 34th Street NW in Georgetown. He told an employee it was his first class and he paid $30 for the session. He changed his clothes, then came back to the front desk and told the manager he would wait for his girlfriend to take the class with him.
The man walked around the studio as the manager focused on signing in other customers. Before leaving the studio, the man asked for his money back, although it wasn’t returned. D.C. police later determined he had registered under a fake name and that $120, along with a checkbook, credit cards and keys, were stolen.
Although thefts at yoga studios aren’t new, police and yoga studio owners say the incident at Yoga Heights that was caught on video shows a new level of boldness.
“She walks in and literally takes the wallet out of someone’s purse and puts it in her purse while the front desk person is there,” said Julie Eisenberg, the owner of Lighthouse Yoga Center. “That’s brazen.”