HOUSTON -

Over the past year Houston police detectives have been working to combat a growing trend of professional car burglars who've graduated to a much bigger payday.

Police told Local 2 Investigates these are crooks who are conducting surveillance at banks, jewelry, and recently, computer stores.

"These are professional and dedicated people that do this," said an undercover Houston police detective. "This is their job."

Police said about a year ago, they began noticing a trend of car burglaries where people lost large amounts of cash, jewelry and electronics.

An undercover detective with HPD said the common thread in many of these crimes is that victims had their cars burglarized shortly after leaving a bank, jewelry or electronics store.

Police said they quickly learned the thieves were conducting patient surveillance at these businesses. Police said the crooks will even watch customers inside the lobby of a bank to pick out the one victim they believe is carrying a large amount of cash.

"They're sophisticated enough they'll be a surveillance team or even a counter surveillance unit looking for the police," the detective said. "They're looking for folks who come out with the briefcase, the backpack, the bank bag."

Police said the crooks will then follow their victims, waiting for an opportunity.

"They rarely commit the crime around the bank or jewelry store, they follow the victim, sometimes for miles," said the detective. "They're looking for you to stop to shop, to stop to eat, stop and do something, it gives them the opportunity to get to your car."

Police said once a person stops, the crooks will smash a window and grab whatever is inside. Police said they've even seen instances where a thief will puncture a person's tire so they have to stop. Police warn that anyone conducting business at a bank, jewelry store or buying electronics needs to pay attention to whether someone may be following them away from the business.

"It wasn't a coincidence you left a bank with a large sum of money and your tire went flat or somebody appears to be following you," the detective said.
Detectives said if a person suspects they are being followed they need to immediately dial 911 and drive to the nearest police station.

Detectives said another variant of this crime is targeting women at gas stations and day cares. Police said crooks will watch these businesses and wait for a woman to either start pumping gas or pick up their child. Police said while the woman is distracted a thief will sneak up to the car and grab a purse.

"Many times people forget to lock their door while they're pumping gas, but these guys can be in and out before the victim even realizes it," the detective said.

HPD has an undercover unit dedicated to catching these crooks and in the last year this unit has arrested 10 people. Other tactical units within the department have also made arrests.