Police talk of their ‘binder full of gypsies’ at 7th PDAC meeting

Ed Hoerger and Anthony Krebs have a binder full of gypsies.

No, Hoerger and Krebs aren’t on the human resources staff of Mitt Romney’s latest political campaign. They’re detectives in the Philadelphia Police Department’s Northeast Division. And their binder is a collection of 150 mug shots of people who investigators believe are part of an underground, closed society of nomadic thieves and scam artists.

Last Thursday, Hoerger and Krebs told members of the 7th Police District Advisory Council about how gypsies travel from state to state, ripping off innocent people and eluding long-term capture. Members of their group usually winter in the American South and show up in the Philadelphia area during warm-weather months. Like clockwork, they have returned to the area in recent weeks.

“We have 150 photos of people we know who ‘work’ the area. Some of them we’ve met,” Hoerger said during the 7th PDAC’s monthly meeting at Deer Meadows Retirement Community.

When Hoerger and Krebs, or police in general, refer to “gypsies,” they don’t necessarily mean the much larger ethnic group known as the Romani people. They are referring specifically to an organization within the Romani Diaspora that isolates itself through language and a closed marriage policy while sustaining itself with the proceeds from scam-based property crimes.

Gypsies are generally non-violent, Hoerger said, and prefer deception and disguise to exploit unwitting victims. The detectives outlined three of the most commonly reported ruses.

In a utility-style scam, the gypsy will pose as a utility worker, such as a water department employee. The crook will show up at a victim’s house unannounced and declare that he’s there to “check on your pipes,” or to perform some other unscheduled work. The crook’s objective is to take the homeowner to a remote area of the property and distract him while the crook’s accomplice slips into the house and steals the victim’s valuables. The gypsies are experts at finding cash and jewelry in a short period of time, wherever it may be hidden in the home.

In a second similar type of put-on, a gypsy will pose as a land surveyor, show up at a house and declare that he’s there to measure property lines. He may claim that a neighbor is planning some construction. Again, the crook’s goal is to distract the victim while an accomplice sneaks into the house.

A third common scam involves a gypsy posing as a home repair contractor. The lead crook may offer to seal the driveway or repair the roof. He may state that he was working on another property in the area and has leftover materials.

In the case of a driveway job, Hoerger said, the crooks may spray the asphalt with a shiny black substance that looks like sealer, but is actually a worthless and useless oil-based mixture. Crooks have been known to use a similar tactic for roof work.

On June 6, Hoerger said, police in Lower Moreland Township identified a suspected gypsy who tried to pull a driveway scam on a resident there. The homeowner rejected the pitch and called police, who stopped the suspects in a truck with a tank full of bogus driveway sealer in tow.

Residents should take several precautions to protect themselves from seasoned scam artists. In general, folks should never allow any strangers into their homes, particularly if the person shows up unannounced. A public utility will always notify a homeowner in advance of scheduled work. Homeowners also should also be wary of any contractors driving out-of-state vehicles. There’s really no good reason that a contractor from Texas will be roaming Northeast Philadelphia to look for work.

• Also during Thursday’s 7th PDAC meeting, the council recognized Brian Allridge and Terrence Black as the district’s Officers of the Month. On May 25, Allridge and Black interrupted a burglary in progress and arrested two suspects in the crime.

The break-in occurred on the 8000 block of Langdon St. A witness called 911. When the officers arrived, one suspect was standing in front acting as a lookout. Allridge stopped and questioned him, while Black went to the back door and waited for the second suspect to emerge from the house. ••