Foreigners Take Advantage of ‘Visa Waivers’ to Go on Crime Sprees in US

‘They’re very sophisticated. It’s a hot zone in Southern California…’

New Report Shows Visa Overstays Are Up

Photo by Kai Hendry (CC)

(Mark Puente, Los Angeles Times) International thieves from Chile are suspected of committing hundreds of burglaries across Southern California after obtaining visa waivers to enter the United States, authorities said.

For months, a sophisticated ring of burglars has targeted affluent homes, businesses and cars in Los Angeles and the counties of Alameda, Orange, San Bernardino, Santa Clara and Ventura, lifting jewelry, guns and other valuables, police said.

A similar spate of “burglary tourism” is occurring in Texas, Arizona, Colorado, New York and other states, as well as several European countries, the FBI said.

“It is a growing problem,” said FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller. “They’re very sophisticated. It’s a hot zone in Southern California.”

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Last week, Simi Valley police, working with the California Highway Patrol and Ventura County deputies, arrested three Chilean men for multiple vehicle burglaries. Each was here on temporary visas, police said.

The men, aged 22 to 29, used a jamming device to prevent car owners from locking their vehicles, a news release said. The device interrupts the signal when car owners activate the lock on key fobs.

The visa waiver makes it hard for police to learn the real identities of the crooks, investigators said.

The ESTA — Electronic System for Travel Authorization — visa waiver allows citizens from 38 countries to visit the United States for tourism, business, study or medical purposes for 90 days.

Crime patterns began emerging in Southern California in the last year.

So far, police have been unable to determine the number of heists, the value of items stolen across the region or how many people work in the ring.

The crews’ signature identifiers include fake passports and phony identification cards. They use rental cars, sometimes masked with paper license plates. After entering the rear of homes, the burglars typically barricade front doors, including those in gated communities with private security patrols.

Once inside, crews scour master bedrooms for jewelry, money, guns and safes. Homes with parks, trails or undeveloped land behind them are prime targets, police said.

Investigators with the Los Angeles Police Department and the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office peg the burglaries in the “hundreds.”

LAPD Capt. Donald Graham, commander of the North Hollywood Division, said it was common for homeowners to lose $30,000 to $40,000 in a heist. Officers are aware of at least 40 burglaries in the division and dozens more in other areas.

The crews break glass or pry open patio doors but will not spend minutes circumventing alarm systems, he said.

“It’s become very distinguished by the way they stack furniture against doors,” Graham said. “This is a wide organized-crime ring. We’re going to need help from other law enforcement agencies to shut them down.”

The crooks also steal paperwork and documents like passports so they can later create more fake identities, he added.

Detectives learned the crews are removing diamonds and other stones from jewelry to make the stolen goods harder to identify or trace.

The federal government established the visa program in 2009 to provide the U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Department of Homeland Security with the capability to pre-screen travelers against numerous no-fly, criminal, and terrorist databases, according to the program website.

The visa waivers are good for two years and can be used for multiple entries. Applicants can apply for the waivers as late as three days before leaving the country, according to the website.

Eimiller, the FBI spokeswoman, said the bureau had contacted its FBI representative in Santiago, Chile, for assistance.

In the last eight months, authorities in London and Australia have made arrests to disrupt similar Chilean theft rings, according to published reports. Australian police say the syndicate stole more than $1 million in goods from stores and homes.

Ventura County Sheriff’s Det. Theodore Stern, lead investigator on the case, said the thieves had developed a “professional system” to strike homes that appear unoccupied.

“It’s in the hundreds and hundreds,” he said about the thefts. “It’s a huge issue. They’re taking advantage of our immigration laws. Officers are working hard to catch these guys.”

In Ventura County, burglars have immediately sold the property or shipped it back to Chile, Stern said. Deputies, he added, have recovered some of the valuables sold locally.

Last month, the city of Hidden Hills sent out 2,000 newsletters warning residents about 11 incidents in the western foothills of the San Fernando Valley.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department believes most, if not all, of the incidents are directly related to “Chilean Tourist Burglars,” the newsletter said.

In January, Simi Valley police arrested four other Chilean men for 20 home burglaries and other thefts from vehicles at golf courses. The men, aged 19 to 30, listed North Hollywood addresses and were arrested after officers conducted surveillance of them in Upland, police said.

“We have arrested some significant players,” Stern said. “It’s very likely there are lots of suspects out there.”

©2019 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.