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Planning ahead prepares collectors
By Cindy Brake

Traveling with coins is as simple as ABC – Always Be Careful.

Most coin shows and conventions have onsite security to help protect collectors and dealers from thieves. However, criminals have been known to follow dealers after a convention closes and wait until an opportune time to steal their inventories. Hotels are another location to consider safety.

When traveling, collectors and dealers can be targets for thieves and robbers. And while a multitude of practical means may lessen the risk, the risk remains and thefts do occur.

"Security risks can never be eliminated," states veteran collector and security specialist Steven K. Ellsworth. He adds, "one out of three collections will eventually be stolen" and "few full-time coin dealers with 10 years experience have avoided being a victim of theft."

Given those warnings, Ellsworth offers suggestions that may deter thieves. He has written a series of articles that are posted on his Web site www.butternut.org.

Ellsworth warns that "next to homes, vehicles are the most likely place for a theft to occur."

Greatest security mistake

He adds that the single greatest security mistake is leaving coins unattended in a vehicle.

Jean and Joe Gallo of Louisiana can vouch for that fact.

In spite of using numerous precautionary measures when traveling home from a coin show in November, they lost more than $500,000 in rare coins and merchandise taken from their vehicle when it was left unattended.

The Gallos drove four hours, going on and off the Interstate to deter any vehicles that might be following them, a precaution many knowledgeable dealers take after leaving a show. The Gallos stopped at a rest area. They stopped at a gas station. Each time they kept their eyes open for any vehicles that might be following them. They never saw anything suspicious. But they were being watched. It appears that thieves attached a tracking device to their vehicle.

When they checked into a hotel, the thieves struck. A security camera revealed two men. One was acting as a lookout. The other popped their vehicle lock; he also appeared to remove a tracking device from the vehicle.

The Gallos returned to the vehicle to get their luggage and a beverage in a cooler located in the same area as the coins. All appeared to be secure. They then drove across the street to eat at a restaurant with lots of people coming in and out. They even parked under a light. When they returned to the vehicle, Mr. Gallo noticed a strap hanging from the vehicle. When they checked the vehicle for their inventory, they found that everything was gone.

"It is devastating," Mrs. Gallo said, adding that the coins were their retirement investment.

Authorities have been alerted and the Gallos are praying that someone, somewhere saw something.

Tracking devices

The use of GPS tracking devices may be the latest wrinkle criminals are using in targeting dealers after a coin show has closed. Some show sponsors consider the possibility of someone monitoring a dealer's vehicle from afar using a tracking device a very real possibility and acts accordingly.

The Money Show of the Southwest is one show that inspects vehicles for tracking devices.

"We are somewhat nuts about security for our dealers," writes show chairman Carl Schwenker. "We have three Houston Police Department individuals, who are techno-type personalities and specialize in security, electronically and visually (on their hands and knees and with mirrors) inspecting every dealer vehicle for GPS devices."

Schwenker explains the check takes about six minutes per vehicle and devices have been found infrequently.

"You have to consider how the thieves pick out their prey. At our show, since our loading dock is three stories above ground and obstructed from street level view and guarded on both entrances, the thieves more than likely select the dealer from inside the hall, then follow him/her to the parking lot where they identify the dealer's vehicle. Then they come back the next morning [departure day], walk the lot until they find the selected vehicle and place the GPS device on it," Schwenker states.

Five years ago, according to Schwenker, one collector "showed his complete collection of very high grade nickels to everybody and anybody." After leaving the show, he placed the set on the floor of his vehicle behind the front seat, placed a blanket on top of it and then two large bags on top of that. He checked his mirrors all along the way, finally stopping after 70 miles for gas and to use the restroom. "The gas station's security cameras showed that as soon as he went into the restroom, a red foreign car quickly appeared, stopped next to his, [and someone in the car] broke the driver's side window, opened the door, then opened the sliding side door, took the bags and blanket off and took the collection all in the space of 20 seconds. The last thing he saw of his collection was on the security tapes as the thieves' car disappeared onto the highway."

Schwenker states that thieves prefer older single drivers. Seasoned dealers traveling with a companion will take turns when stopping for restroom breaks, ensuring that someone is always in the vehicle.

Ellsworth, however has his doubts about tracking devices.

"There have been claims by those who have left their vehicle unattended and had theft occur to feel that there must have been a GPS tracker attached. There has never been any evidence to support this claim or theory,"

Ellsworth writes in an email.

Personal responsibility

Remembering that "security is a personal responsibility," Ellsworth recommends coin dealers "try to think like a thief" when traveling with coins by casing the facility and looking for problem areas. "Trust your instincts," he suggests.

Before beginning a trip, Ellsworth recommends a visual inspection of the vehicle's exterior. Check the tires and tire pressure. Check for leaking fluids by looking under the car and under the engine. Start with a full tank of gas prior to loading coins, and a cell phone is a must. Just remember when using the cell phone to keep conversations private by making sure no one is within earshot while you are on the phone.

"When packing your vehicle, always remember 'Coins in last when departing. Coins out first, when arriving,' " Ellsworth states. Some thieves have struck when a dealer arrived home and left the vehicle unattended for a few moments.

Be alert

Drivers should "be very alert and drive defensively," keeping night driving to a minimum. Plan a course or route. Decide early where to stop for fuel and food, using only drive-through restaurants. Keep the car locked when refueling.

Vary your routine.

Be cautious and aware of being followed by another vehicle. Ellsworth suggests traveling at different speeds for 20 to 30 minutes. It becomes more obvious if a vehicle is following when traveling at slower speeds. During the first hour of travel, take an exit and then return to the highway.

Ellsworth states that "most robberies of jewelry or coins occur in parking lots, alleys, parks, public transportation centers, financial institutions and retail stores."

When sleeping or taking a shower in a hotel room, Ellsworth recommends using a bicycle lock to attach valuables to a fixture. He also suggests bringing a stubby door wedge and little flashlight. And never open a hotel door to any stranger. All deliveries should be made to the front desk.

"Most hotel experts agree that in the United States, Miami, New Orleans and New York have the greatest number of thefts," Ellsworth writes. Outside the United States, in "Mexico and anywhere in South America you are not only more vulnerable to theft, but also to kidnap-for-ransom abductions that are now near epidemic levels."

According to Ellsworth, the "world leader in hotel theft" is Jamaica.

When making a hotel reservation, Ellsworth recommends requesting a room on the second or third floor and not next to a stairwell or across from or near an elevator. Electronic locks or plastic slide cards are "the single greatest deterrent to theft in hotel/motels."

Hotel lobby safe deposit boxes and in-room safes "are not foolproof," Ellsworth writes. When carrying coins, use a nondescript, zippered bag rather than the aluminum cases some dealers prefer to carry.

Ellsworth recommends travelers with coins use the five Ps principle: prior planning prevents poor performance.

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