Coin theft is one of the biggest threats coin dealers face, whether they are working out of a brick-and-mortar storefront or attending coin shows halfway across the country
By Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez for CoinWeek.com ......
It doesn't matter how big a show is or where it's held, all coin shows present inherent security risks.
It is the occasional if unsurprising outcome of what happens when a large group of coin dealers convene in one place and collectively welcome dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of members of the general public all at once. Most coin show attendees are honest, upstanding people who are there to buy coins, enjoy seminars, and meet with friends both old and new. The system wouldn't work if they weren't. But there are always a few bad actors looking to make a quick buck with the swipe of a 2 x 2 or third-party slab.
Coin show security staff are trained and equipped to handle a wide array of numismatic emergencies, including theft, fights, and, these days, even terrorist attacks. And thanks to armed security and omnipresent law enforcement--not to mention the many folks at coin shows who will proudly and unabashedly exercise their Second Amendment rights--an all-out heist at gunpoint is unlikely. But the determined, low-level opportunistic thief is always a concern.
While the loss of a couple mid-range Liberty nickels or a few common-date Morgan dollars may not necessarily spell financial disaster for a dealer, it can hurt in ways untold by a financial ledger. It goes without saying that the pain is compounded when the stolen inventory includes extremely rare, high-value pieces that represent extensive investments or are irreplaceable for one reason or another.
Dealing with Criminals
Tim Brown of Buffalo Brothers was concerned about his table when he walked the bourse at a recent American Numismatic Association (ANA) National Money Show in Orlando and noticed five law enforcement officers apprehending a man wearing a baseball cap.
“I rushed back to the table where Jeoff [Tim's brother] was and asked him if he had seen the guy at our booth.”
Brown said his brother had and was concerned about a few of the coins the suspect had been looking at.
“We immediately went to the police to see if the suspect had any of our coins. We also showed the law enforcement officers some of our other coins to verify what our stickers and labels looked like to compare them to any the suspect may have had.”
The police found several of the Browns’ coins in the suspect’s possession.
“They found all but two,” said Tim Brown, noting two pieces unaccounted for out of a box of 100. “This is the first time, to our knowledge at least, we’ve ever lost anything through theft."
Brown has had operated a store near Pensacola, Florida for about six years and has attended shows as a dealer for more than a decade.
“Luckily the losses weren’t big – when you do $2,000 at a coin show, losing $100 or so doesn’t really hurt as much, but it’s still the principle of the crime that matters,” he adds. “When you’re a coin dealer, you become pretty trusting by nature, so incidents like this hurt – and they don’t help the industry.”
While he is still contemplating what he and his brother Jeoff may do in the future to help prevent theft at their table, Brown says he knows of several coin dealers who have taken strong measures.
“I know Charmy uses cameras at her table.”
Charmy Harker, a coin dealer widely known as “The Penny Lady”, was near the Browns’ table at the show when the theft happened but didn’t personally witness the incident. Her booths are routinely equipped with camera surveillance.
“I started setting up a security camera at shows. I also display a bright-colored sign letting people know they are under surveillance, which I think is a very helpful deterrent.”
For Harker, who once caught and prosecuted a coin thief who stole from her, the losses at the Browns’ table hit home.
“The theft happened at a show about three hours from where I live, and the value of the coins was not that much,” says the Irvine, California-based dealer who specializes in American copper coins. “But that didn’t matter to me. I was determined to make sure this thief was convicted.
So what happened?
“[The thief] ended up pleading guilty and only got a $500 fine and three years’ probation, but at least it was on his record.”
Luckily, Harker recovered the coins not long after the thief stole them.
“[He] begged me to let him pay for the coins and even offered me three times their value, but I told him no – that he deserved to go to jail for stealing from me.”
For a variety of reasons, it is relatively common for coin dealers to decline prosecution if the perpetrator is apprehended and most or all of the stolen merchandise is returned in its original condition.
“I’ve personally seen and heard about many dealers who prefer to just get their coins back and let the thief go," said Harker. "I even twice witnessed a thief steal coins from two different dealers’ tables but in both instances the dealers chose not to prosecute because it would be inconvenient for them.”
Harker, who has been in the business for about 20 years, believes dealers have a responsibility to themselves and the rest of the coin dealer community to vigorously pursue any and all individuals who steal coins.
“I strongly believe in the prosecution of all coin thieves, no matter the inconvenience to the dealer,” she asserts. “I also believe it is a big deterrent if more dealers would prosecute thieves even for small-value thefts. Even if a thief gets a ‘light’ sentence, at least it goes on their record and if they are caught again their punishment will be harsher.”
While Harker has both seen and personally experienced coin thefts, she hardly feels threatened on the bourse at coin shows.
“Most of the larger shows do an exceptional job at having security, both visible and undercover, on the bourse floor,” she says.
Harker’s biggest concern? Leaving the show, when a coin dealer is "most susceptible to being the victim of a theft." But she doesn’t let herself become a victim.
“I have a concealed carry permit and often carry a handgun, especially when I’m driving to a show.”
Ultimately, Harker’s view on dealer safety is that a keen awareness of one’s surroundings and self-protection are the keys to staying secure when attending shows. But to her, the long-term solution is going the extra mile to ensure no thief goes uncaught or unpunished.
“In my opinion, it is out duty to do what it takes to deter and remove coin thieves from the shows,” she remarks. “Doug Davis does a great job getting the word out about stolen coins as well as [taking] photos of the thieves. This is a great service to coin dealers and has resulted in the recovery of several dealers’ stolen inventory.”
Doug Davis, founder and president of the Numismatic Crime Information Center (NCIC), is leading efforts in the coin industry to clamp down on a crime that, he says, is a growing problem.
“The incidents of theft at shows seem to be increasing and has always been a potential issue. In most cases it is a crime of opportunity,” he reports. “I believe there is a high risk for coin dealers at any show regardless of size.”
Davis also shares the opinion that dealers industry-wide need to follow through on prosecutions to send clear signals to criminals that they cannot get away with stealing coins and escaping prosecutorial consequences.
“I believe it is a negative message and provides them the opportunity to commit the same type of offense at other shows knowing that in most instances dealers will not prosecute,” he says. “Prosecution of persons who commit offenses against dealers is needed in every case if possible, the suspect identified, and that information distributed to other coin shows and the numismatic community. The information needs to be publicized to deter others and to ensure that the suspect who is caught is banned from future numismatic events.”
Unfortunately, the likelihood of getting every dealer to prosecute every theft is unlikely. However, there are ways coin dealers can reduce the risk of theft and help protect themselves and their assets from crooks.
“Dealers should not be apathetic and think that they will never become a crime victim,” Davis says. “When attending shows, whether traveling by car or plane, dealers should be attentive to any suspicious persons or activity in the area of their movements to and from the show. During the show, be aware thieves may work in pairs and distract dealers who are working alone.”
He also suggests maintaining control of inventory and dealing with one person at a time.
“Do not deal or discuss business outside of the bourse floor.”
Finally, he says dealers need to be aware of issues that may inherently increase the risks of a theft.
“All dealers should conduct a personal and business security risk assessment to minimize becoming a victim of a numismatic crime.”
Monitoring the Bourse
Major annual coin shows, such as those held by the ANA and the Florida United Numismatists (FUN), draw thousands of people. Show coordinators at these and other major conventions rely on the expertise of numismatic security firm Positive Protection, Incorporated (PPI).
Vice President of Operations Kenneth Mullins, whose career includes years with the New York City Police Department, offers his insight on the biggest security issues coin dealers face at shows and how to deal with these threats:
“The biggest weakness I see at shows is coin dealers who show coins to more than one or two people at a time and/or having too much inventory accessible to the public than they are capable of properly watching,” he says.
Keeping track of stock with handy, accurate inventory lists is one way that dealers can better account for their material while at a show.
“Know what inventory you have with you,” he says. “Be observant and watch out for your fellow dealers at shows. Working better together with security and law enforcement can make for a safer environment.”
Another way to help prevent coin theft? Mullins sums up the answer in one word: cameras.
"Thieves do not like cameras."
Tom Cross knows this, too. He helped staff a camera-equipped booth at the ANA National Money Show in Orlando operated by Texican Rare Coins of Tyler, Texas, and assisted in apprehending the thief that hit the Browns’ booth a dozen spaces away on the same row on the bourse.
“This is the third time this camera system has worked for us,” says Cross, who helps set up security cameras at the shows where he and a business partner run booths. He remarked that their cameras have also caught thieves red-handed at other shows.
“All of our cameras are restricted only to our own table space, so as not to infringe on the privacy of those at neighboring tables.”
Cross, a retired police chief who enjoys collecting Morgan dollars, has innovated several methods for arranging cameras in such a way that they catch all the action at his booth without trampling on the spoken and unspoken boundaries of those at other tables.
“We’ve found so many ways to use this camera system. We can even single out the camera so it can zoom in on just your hands – or we can back up the data to a thumb drive or computer for prosecution.”
His system involves multiple networked cameras at various strategic overhead locations. Cross says the camera system costs less than $500 to purchase and takes less than 30 minutes for him and his booth colleagues to set up at each show.
“You could lose more than [$500] if even one coin is stolen, so saving even one expensive coin will help the system pay for itself,” says Cross, who has collected coins for more than 50 years.
In addition to catching thieves, Cross says the camera surveillance system is also great for keeping track of coins that were dropped off and picked up for appraisals or exchanged during other types of transactions.
"The cameras prove our credibility and keep everyone honest.”
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