Los Angeles police Detective Steve Krauss and other police officials have this month provided business owners with security tips after a 65-year-old homeless woman was sentenced to County Jail for breaking into Sherman Oaks businesses along Ventura Boulevard using store restroom keys.
Cheryl Hampstead pleaded guilty earlier this month to burglarizing two locations and was sentenced to 15 months in jail. However, police believe she may have burglarized at least eight businesses in total, some of them perhaps multiple times, and possibly others.
“Basically, she had a good little scam going,” Krauss said. “She’d go in and use a restroom key, take off with it and then come back at night and use the same key to try the locks on the business door. She jiggled the lock and told us that many times it worked on various locks.”
The series of break-ins began in May when retail store owners and those with businesses in office buildings reported thefts of small items such as pens, cash from employee tip jars and, in one instance, a jacket owned by a rabbi. But police were puzzled because no doors or windows were forced open.
They solved the case when a surveillance video at a Baskin-Robbins store showed the woman jiggling the lock outside the store. As a result of the burglaries, Krauss has attended community meetings to provide security tips to businesses. They include:
- Provide restroom keys only to customers.
- Install an alarm system, preferably an audible one.
- Install a security video camera and make sure that it works, the picture is sharp and it operates overnight when no one is in the store.
- If the cash register can be seen from outside the store, leave it wide open with the empty money tray on the counter, to show potential thieves that there is nothing to steal.
- Secure the property with bars, if possible.
"A lot of folks don’t like bars,” Krauss said. “But if you have them and your neighbor doesn’t, they’re more likely to leave you alone and go for your neighbor.”
Locksmith Vikki Flam, who co-owns in Sherman Oaks, added that a likely reason Hampstead was able to enter stores using restroom keys is that business owners frequently install the same brand of lock in both places.
Keys from one lock brand will often fit into other locks of the same brand. Though the key may not turn the lock at first, jiggling it can force all the parts in the lock’s cylinder to align themselves and the lock opens.
It’s similar to “key bumping,” in which a blank key that fits specific brands of locks is inserted and hit with a hammer, causing all the lock parts to align in a straight line and turn the lock, Flam said.
To prevent that, she recommended high-security locks. With interior parts at different angles, they can’t be picked or bumped to open. These locks can cost $185 compared to about $25 for a regular lock, Flam said.
Hampstead could be released in as little as four months, given how jail time is computed, Krauss said.
“Some people asked us why we’re filing charges against her [given her age]?” he added. “But look how many places she hit. And she’ll be out pretty quick.”