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GPS devices help police nab appliance thieves

Modesto Bee
Thursday, November 15, 2007

Thieves casing a housing construction site in Lathrop, Calif. must have thought that all those new appliances and cabinetry sitting inside unoccupied homes were easy pickins.

Little did these quasi-crafty crooks know that they would be easy pickins themselves.

You see, the appliances were rigged with global positioning system technology that led San Joaquin County sheriff's investigators right to the stolen loot and the suspected thieves.

Authorities arrested six suspects a sheriff's spokesman said.

The stolen property included new refrigerators, stoves, dishwashers, air conditioners and heaters along with kitchen cabinets and other items valued at more than $30,000, said deputy Dave Konecny.

Officials from KB Homes, one of the largest homebuilders in the country, called San Joaquin County sheriff's deputies Monday morning about several kitchen appliances stolen overnight from six unsold homes in Lathrop.

KB Homes officials told the deputies the appliances contained GPS tracking devices.

"Job site theft is an industry-wide issue," said KB Homes in a prepared statement. Working with the San Joaquin County Sheriff's office, we recently implemented new security measures at several of our construction sites, including placing GPS tracking devices on our materials."

All six people were arrested on suspicion of possession of stolen property. More arrests could come, Konecny said, and those arrested could face additional criminal charges.

News of the San Joaquin County theft investigation piqued the interest of homebuilders in Stanislaus County, said deputy Royjindar Singh, a Stanislaus County sheriff's spokesman.

He said builders called the Sheriff's Department to find out how they can use GPS devices to prevent similar appliance theft. Singh said builders have to ensure the GPS tracking information is reliable before investigators can obtain a search warrant to find stolen property.

But the anti-theft strategy is something the Sheriff's Department welcomes.

"As technology gets better, it's getting cheaper and cheaper to buy these things," Singh said. "It's going to be less work for us."

Cliff Emery has worked as an electronic surveillance specialist for the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department for the past five years, and he held a similar job for the Tulare County Sheriff's Department.

Emery's work includes GPS tracking in criminal investigations. He said monitoring large appliances with GPS devices is a strategy that's been used for slightly more than a year.

"The construction industry has really been suffering the brunt of this issue," Emery said Wednesday.

You're not going to find a refrigerator with GPS at the local appliance store. He said thieves target the large appliances in empty homes that are still on the market.

"You won't have to worry about leaving your washing machine alone and coming back to find it gone," Emery said. "It hasn't gotten that bad yet."

He said the GPS industry has greatly diversified its applications in recent years, from helping shipping companies monitor the speed of trucks to regulating the flow of pesticides from agricultural equipment.

"This is a massive industry," Emery said. "And now it's moving into protecting some of the simple things in life we take for granted."