Last week, shortly before Halloween, a costumed man was walking around this town, knocking on homeowners’ doors. He wasn’t seeking treats, but he was up to some tricks. And, disturbingly, most of the Nutleyites who answered his knock were all too readily duped.
Luckily for them, the whole thing was an exercise in public-safety awareness, conducted under the watchful eyes of Nutley police. What transpired should be a warning not only for Nutley residents, but for folks in all our Observer towns.
The man was Jeff Rossen, a journalist for NBC News, who was taping a segment for “The Today Show.” The intent was to alert viewers nationwide to a common scam and to illustrate how easily trusting and unsuspecting people could be victimized.
Rossen was dressed as a utility worker, in “official” vest and hardhat (purchased online). Armed with a “company” clipboard — and wearing a hidden camera and microphone — he would knock on a door and tell whoever answered that there was a gas leak in the neighborhood and he needed to enter the home to check the basement for contaminants. All but one of the Nutleyites gladly admitted him, without even asking for identification.
Afterwards, Rossen did I.D. himself and explained that it was all a test. The homeowners were shocked. And so were the Nutley cops, especially since Nutley has been proactive in trying to inform residents about the various scams (online, via phone, in person) commonly being perpetrated by criminals.
This particular one — a con artist impersonating a utility employee, an inspector, etc. — is termed a “diversion burglary,” since burglary is the actual intent and the person who is invited into the home creates the diversion. (Colloquially, it’s called a “knock-knock burglary.”)
As NPD Det. Sgt. Anthony Montanari explained, that individual “tries to bring the homeowner to another part of the house, such as the basement, allowing an accomplice to enter and ransack the bedroom for valuables.” The impersonator, Montanari added, “generally will create noise or disruption so that the resident is unable to hear the second actor enter.”
Because the resident accompanies the “utility worker” through the home and is able to keep a close eye on him, the victim does not suspect burglary. However, it is the accomplice who actually steals things. Once the resident discovers a room has been ransacked, the perps are usually long gone. Usually. Police around the nation note there have been instances involving confrontations between criminals and victims, resulting in assaults. In such a case, “things can turn very bad, very quickly.”
Although the accomplice may target any room for theft, he usually “makes a beeline to the master bedroom,” Montanari said. That’s because the bedroom is where people commonly keep their valuables — in closets, dresser drawers, jewelry boxes, strongboxes. Ransacking the room can be done in the blink of an eye. Noted the detective, “If any preventative action is worth employing, it is to get those valuables out of the bedroom!”
The best preventative action, of course, is not to allow access in the first place unless the “utility worker” can produce valid identification — which is not necessarily the name tag or even the I.D. card that might be shown. “Official” I.D. cards can be easily faked.
“A second form of identification should be requested as well,” Montanai said. [For example, ask for the person’s driver’s license and see if the names match.] “Look for the utility worker’s vehicle and obtain a registration number if you are able to. Take a moment and call the company the worker claims to be from, and, as always, call the Police Department if something doesn’t seem right.”
Riding in an unmarked car, Montanari and Officer Dominick Argentieri accompanied the NBC crew throughout Nutley to observe the interactions and, afterward, to inform the residents of how the matter should have been handled.
Montanari noted, “Rossen had a scripted dialogue that led the residents to believe he was in fact a utility worker with a local gas company, then added a sense of urgency by telling them there was a gas leak . . . .Once the urgency was created, I noticed guards went down.”
Nutley Police Chief Thomas Strumolo said that the TV report “provides us an opportunity to let our residents know how vulnerable they could be.” When presented with a scenario about a utility worker coming to their door seeking entry, the common response is that they would ask for identification. “Yet,” said the chief, “when faced with a realistic situation adding some urgency, they nearly all allowed entry without asking.”
Mayor/Police Director Alphonse Petracco noted that a Fischer Ave. burglary of just this type was committed last year by a scamster who gained access by telling the residents there had been a chemical spill on the next block. Two similar incidents occurred on Ravine Ave. the prior year. “This is a common scam, and I want our residents to be mindful that there are predators out there looking for opportunity,” Petracco said.
Rossen made his Nutley visit Monday, Oct. 26. The segment aired nationwide last Thursday morning on NBC’s “The Today Show.” You can find the video of his report at www.today.com.