Rash of Jewelry Thefts Has Indian-Americans Re-Thinking Customs

People shop for gold jewelry in Ahmadabad, India, May 6, 2011, during the Hindu festival
People shop for gold jewelry in Ahmadabad, India, May 6, 2011, during the Hindu festival " Akshay Tritiya", which is considered auspicious for buying gold. Indian-Americans' love affair with gold has made them targets for criminals.

The custom of many Indian-Americans of keeping large amounts of high-quality gold and gold jewelry in their homes is making them targets for criminals around the United States.

In the past nine months, eight jurisdictions in suburban Atlanta, Georgia have reported cases of robbery, burglary and even home invasion. Cobb County alone has seen 15 cases. In upstate New York there have been numerous cases of burglary in several jurisdictions.

“There’s a common perception among criminals that there's a likelihood they're going to get high quality jewelry robbing Indian-Americans,” said Corporal Jacob Smith of the Gwinnett County Police, a force patrolling the Atlanta suburbs where several recent crimes have happened.

Gold jewelry traditionally is seen by many Indian-Americans as an investment and an important way to display family status. Jewelry is passed down over generations. The custom of keeping it in the home is both convenient and a holdover from India, where banks and safety deposit boxes are not always considered completely safe.

That custom appears to have spurred crime sprees in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., Dallas, Houston, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Boston and central Illinois, all areas with large Indian-American populations.

Law enforcement officers still aren’t sure just how organized the criminals are, but Sargeant Dana Pierce of the Cobb County Police Department in suburban Atlanta said there’s enough of a trend to consider the perpetrators may be collaborating.

“We’re working with agencies up and down the eastern seaboard and as far west as Houston, Texas,” he said, adding that while they have made some arrests, the crimes have not stopped completely.

The criminals know what they’re looking for, and with the price of gold skyrocketing, it presents a tempting target because the material is easy to melt and easy to sell.

Catching the criminals with the stolen goods has proved to be difficult, said Pierce.

“We're very suspicious about how they're getting [the stolen merchandise] so quickly away from themselves,” he said, suggesting this is indicative of organized crime.

Law enforcement agencies are reaching out to the affected communities, holding information sessions and giving crime prevention tips, but the best solution is to convince Indian-American to stop keeping valuables in the home.

Raman Kumar learned that lesson the hard way. He fell victim to a string of robberies of Indian-Americans in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. in 2009. The thieves stole a gold statue, but left electronics and other valuables behind. He lost over $100,000 worth of gold and jewelry, none of which was recovered.

“I don't have any valuables in my home anymore," said Kumar. “A lot of Indian-Americans are keeping their valuables in safety deposit boxes as a result of the 2009 robberies.”

In those cases, the thieves operated out of New York, where they would take the stolen goods to be melted down.

As the Northern Virginia spree unfolded, Kumar started a blog to share the latest information with other members of the community.

Keeping the community informed is crucial to foiling would-be thieves, according to Pierce, who said a similar website has been launched in the Atlanta area.

In the Bay area of California, where there has been a spate of burglaries and even muggings of Indian-Americans, Vikash Rungta, who helps run the website, said it has gotten hard to rent a safety deposit box in heavily populated areas like Sunnyvale.

“Some banks have waiting lists,” he said.

Rungta also said Indian women are changing their habit of wearing expensive jewelry, wearing it only at private parties.

“It’s getting more acceptable to wear less or none at all,” he said.

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