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Thieves put prominent businesswoman on alert

Posted: January 21, 2013 6:38 p.m.
Updated: January 21, 2013 6:43 p.m.

Sheriff's detectives are still looking for a blond woman who steals wallets from women's purses and uses their credit cards to obtain cash and valuables. Photo provided by Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department

Cheri Fleming rummaged in her purse for ID to go with the grocery store check she was writing, but she didn’t panic when she couldn’t find her wallet.

It was 12:44 p.m. on a Saturday, and the well-known local businesswoman and service club leader reasoned that she had ordered in dinner the night before, and her wallet must be at home on the table next to the phone.

She had arrived at the market around noon.

She didn’t know that, even as she searched for her wallet, thieves who had stolen it from her handbag on the shopping cart child seat had taken $4,000 from her bank on a credit card advance and had tried to charge $23,000 in jewelry a short distance from the grocery store where she stood.

All that before she had time to get to the cashier and write a check.

Fleming — who with husband, Don, owns Valencia Acura and who is president-elect of Soroptimist International of the Americas — had undertaken the routine grocery-shopping chore with her husband and grandson, she said in an interview Monday.

By 12:18 p.m. that Saturday, Jan. 12, thieves had the cash advance from the bank. At 12:30 p.m., they were trying to charge the jewelry but were thwarted by an alert store manager.

“A lady came in and she picked out four expensive items really quickly,” said Valencia Ben Bridge Jeweler employee Jeannie Sohn. store manager Olga Wolf “had a gut feeling that something wasn’t right. Nobody comes into a jewelry store and makes a large purchase so quickly,” Sohn said.

Wolf called mall security, which called the Sheriff’s Department. The woman with the stolen credit cards quickly left.

Fleming was one of at least three Santa Clarita Valley women targeted by an apparent ring of thieves who lift women’s wallets from their purses during the mundane task of grocery shopping, then use stolen credit cards to obtain cash or valuables.

“The first few days I felt kind of embarrassed and very violated and vulnerable,” Fleming said Monday during an interview in her Valencia Acura office. “Then I started feeling ... we’re not going to let this happen in our community.”

Strangest of all was watching surveillance video taken at Ben Bridge of the blond woman masquerading as her, Fleming said. “I saw her open my wallet. I saw her swiping my (credit) card,” she said.

Fleming, who with her husband is a longtime supporter of local charities, said she is emerging from the experience with two resolutions: To be more careful about her own security and to help others do the same for themselves.

Although she was with family while shopping, and she and her husband traded pushing the shopping cart, “I made it easy for someone to violate me” by leaving her purse in the cart, she said.

Now she keeps her shoulder-strap bag zipped up and on her person while shopping, she said. And when she sees another woman acting as she did — with an open purse in the cart’s child seat — she politely mentions what happened to her.

Fleming urged all women to remove extraneous items from their purses, to make copies of everything they carry and to put those copies together somewhere safe.

“If you’re violated like this, time is of the essence. And you’re panicked, too,” she said. Having all information together for canceling credit cards and notifying banks can help.

Within a few hours after the Ben Bridge incident, Fleming said, the perpetrators had attempted another cash withdrawal and tried to use a stolen credit card twice at gas stations.

Fleming praised Wolf, the Ben Bridge manager, for her quick action and also praised the Sheriff’s Department.

The department issued a warning last week about the apparent ring of thieves — at least one male suspect was believed involved. It has received many tips since then, Deputy Josh Dubin said Monday.

“A lot of people have called on who they think that person is,” Dubin said of the frame grab of a blond woman who passed herself off as the credit cards’ rightful owner. “Now we’re going through that (information). A lot of people are trying to help.”

No new reports of the scam have been made in the Santa Clarita Valley since Jan. 12, he said.

Investigators in Thousand Oaks reported similar incidents Jan. 10, he said. The agencies are comparing notes to determine if the suspects are the same.

Meantime, Fleming said, she is aware that someone has her driver’s license with her address on it, and someone has her insurance card. The house’s security code has been changed. An identity-theft service has been notified.

But at least some of the feeling of vulnerability lingers.

She locks her car doors the moment she gets inside, and she is careful arriving at her home at night. Sometimes, she drives by it on her first approach.

“They’re working it with multiple cities on alert,” she said of the Sheriff’s Department investigation, echoing Dubin’s statement that neighboring jurisdictions have been notified. “We’re going to catch ‘em.”



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