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How a pandemic measure is being exploited by criminals: security experts


While some people are still wearing medical masks to protect themselves and others from COVID-19, others are donning them for a totally different reason: to disguise their identity.

Security experts have noticed thieves and purse snatchers are often wearing medical masks while they commit crimes.

“We are seeing a lot of people who are up to no good keeping masks on, and I’m sure it’s to aid in their ability to do what they want to do,” said James Blight with Paladin Security.

Last week in Richmond, two men wearing masks were caught on surveillance video trying to steal bags from patrons of a popular seafood restaurant. They were chased down by staff who managed to retrieve a stolen bag, but RCMP say the masked men have not been identified.

“I think the normalization of the medical mask makes it very challenging, it adds to the anonymity that a thief can have when they want to do something criminal,” said Blight.

There is a separate criminal code charge for committing a crime while concealing ones identity.

“If you commit a crime while you’re disguised, it is worse on the eyes of the law than if you commit a crime when you’re not disguised. But because of the normalization of medical masks, I don’t think we are going to see that pursued by Crown,“ said Blight.

He says stores and restaurants can combat shoplifting and bag theft by doing crime prevention through customer service. Everyone, masked or not, should be approached by staff and asked how they can be helped, and what they’re looking for.

“Getting close to them, making eye contact removes some of that anonymity, and would make customers feel more welcome, but makes thieves feel less comfortable about doing the crime they were maybe thinking about committing,” Blight said.

“It is certainly tougher now because so many people are wearing masks,” said Michael Jagger with Provident Security. “But the behaviour that you’re looking for in a store or in a restaurant, with or without a mask — acting in a suspicious way, lingering around in a different way — those are markers you can sort of tell.”

Both security experts say there are ways to avoid becoming easy targets for purse snatchers.

“The valuable item, the purse in this case, needs to be somewhere you can see it. So if someone is tampering with it or trying to reach inside or move it or re-position it, you see it happen and you are able to intervene before they get away,” said Blight.

“The simplest thing, sitting in a restaurant or coffee shop, never hang the purse off the back of a chair with your jacket. Put it through your legs so someone can’t just pull it and take it away from you so easily,“ added Jagger, who also suggests people keep an inventory of what’s in their bag.

“What’s worse than having your bag stolen is the moments afterwards, realizing the bag is's trying to remember exactly what’s in the bag,” he said.

Their most important piece of advice? Always pay attention to your surroundings, and your belongings. “Criminals are looking for any opportunity to take advantage of our inattentiveness,” said Blight. Top Stories

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