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Open-house thefts make estate agents extremely cautious

Two women posing as wealthy homebuyers recently visited at least six open houses in Manhattan and New Jersey and robbed them of jewelry and trinkets worth more than $73,000 (49,531 EUR).

The haul included expensive handbags by Louis Vuitton, Hermes and Coach; earrings, bracelets and an alarm clock from Tiffany; a fur coat, jackets, diamonds - even a bottle of Veuve Clicquot champagne.

The theft and subsequent arrests of Jessica Joyner and Jennifer Jones were splashed all over the tabloids this week and got real estate agents talking about renewed vigilance against the rare visiting thief.

Open houses are practically a sport in real estate-obsessed New York, with some drawing hundreds of house hunters in a short window of time. That makes it tough for brokers to keep an eye on everyone.

A few large apartment buildings even changed their policies on open houses, adding a requirement that visitors show photo identification in the lobby.

"This has created a lot of shock," said Pamela Liebman, president and chief executive of the Corcoran Group, one of New York City's biggest real estate agencies.

But, she added, sellers shouldn't worry. "I've been in the business for 20 years, and there are very, very few instances where this happens."

Even with home sales slumping across the United States, the industry still looks to open houses to lure a maximum number of potential buyers.

Carol Burnett, a vice president at Alain Pinel Realtors, which has 23 offices in the San Francisco Bay Area, said it is common for brokers in strong markets to send a second agent to high-traffic open houses to help watch customers.

Agents also ask sellers to help keep theft opportunities to a minimum.

"I never want to see jewelry out on display," Rochelle Bass, an executive vice president at Bellmarc Realty, another top Manhattan brokerage, wrote in an e-mail.

Other tips: Stash prescription drugs out of sight, even if that means removing them from the medicine cabinet; lock up checkbooks and any sensitive mail; hide items like cameras and watches in a suitcase under the bed.

Stephanie Singer, a spokeswoman for the National Association of Realtors, said sellers posting photos of their homes online might want be careful too. "Make sure the photos are ... not highlighting your prized possessions," she said.

Prosecutors said Joyner, 39, and Jones, 33, did their best to look like rich buyers.

Both came dressed like Upper East Side socialites, arriving in a Jaguar. According to police, one would distract the broker, while the other looked for things to steal.

The pair behaved bizarrely enough, though, that they attracted attention. A doorman wrote down their license plate number as they left one open house.

And on Nov. 11, an agent showing a $1.9 million (1.3 million EUR) three-bedroom duplex on the Upper West Side grew suspicious and went looking for one of the women, who had drifted out of sight.

"When he walked in, she was throwing jewelry into a bag," said Douglas Heddings, a senior vice president at Prudential Douglas Elliman.

The women fled before police arrived, but Heddings posted images from the building's security camera on his real estate blog, www.truegotham.com, to alert other brokers and the public.

Joyner and Jones were arrested last weekend on charges of grand larceny and possession of stolen property and were being held this week on $30,000 (20,355 EUR) bail.

A lawyer for the women said Joyner suffers from "serious and ongoing chronic medical and psychiatric issues" and that Jones had a medical condition that caused severe pain.

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