Police in Montgomery County are warning women about a group of thieves targeting victims at parks, schools, gyms and daycare centers -- any place where they might leave their purses behind in a vehicle.
Investigators are trying to find out if the thieves are part of an out-of-state gang now operating in our area.
With three young children, Christine Sproat of Kensington had her hands full on St. Patrick's Day as she was dropping the kids off at a birthday party at the Audubon Sanctuary.
"I had my diaper bag, but I left my purse in the car,” Sproat says. “Not the best idea.”
She returned to her minivan 30 minutes later to find the window smashed and her purse gone.
The thieves wasted no time trying to cash in on Sproat's misfortune.
"I got a phone from PNC Bank in Columbia, Md. The woman there said someone was trying to go through the drive through using my ID and debit card. She saw there was a fraud alert on my card, so she confiscated my stuff," says Sproat.
Three days later, the thieves were able to cash Sproat's stolen checks at another bank, and made off with $3,000.
She says detectives and bank officials told her it sounds like the method of operation of the Felony Lane Gang that originated in Florida and is spreading.
"They sit in parking lots and they watch and wait," Sproat says. "They watch to see if you're taking your purse with you. They're targeting women."
Montgomery County police say there has been a spike in this type of crime lately.
"We always see an increase in this type of crime when the weather warms up and more people are out and about,” says Officer Janelle Smith. “Most people don't think their valuables will be stolen while they're out on foot for a walk or hike.”
While local police here look for a link to the out-of-state gang, they are urging women to do like Rebecca Madison does when she hikes at Seneca Creek State Park.
"When I come here, I lock my bag in the trunk area and hide it behind some grocery bags, so even if you could see in the tinted windows, you wouldn't see anything of value," Madison says.
Even better, police say leave your valuables at home.
The good news for Christine Sproat is that because she quickly contacted her bank and they put a fraud alert on her account, she’s not out the $3,000 the thieves stole.
She did, however, have to shut down all her bank accounts, cancel all credit cards, and get a new driver's license -- just to be on the safe side.