Security video captures two men stealing glasses and frames from an optometrist’s office in Arizona. These men are believed to have broken into a number of optometry offices in the Phoenix area.
"Stop, thief!"

If you happened to be in Providence, R.I., on the afternoon of Thursday, August 19, you might have seen a 42-year-old woman running down Warren Avenue. She was being chased by a police officer and optometrist George Brown.

Minutes before, at Dr. Brown’s office, someone reported seeing Ms. Cook put several pairs of glasses into her purse. Then the woman took off out the door. Dr. Brown followed, and an off-duty police officer joined in the chase.

Before they cornered her in a dead end, she had allegedly tossed her purse over a fence. When the purse was later recovered, nine pairs of frames—worth more than $2,400—were inside.

Ms. Cook was arrested for felony shoplifting.

Twice Bitten
Few cases of theft are solved as easily as this one. In fact, “eyeglass thieves” are rarely ever caught and the goods are almost never recovered. That’s why it’s so important to protect your practice from theft in the first place.

But theft protection is an ongoing process, as optometrist Gary Morgan found out when his practice was burglarized twice in just one week. Late one night in August 2008, thieves broke into Dr. Morgan’s freestanding office in the Phoenix suburb of Chandler, Ariz., and made off with thousands of dollars’ worth of high-end sunglasses.

Only a week later, the thieves struck his office again—cleaning him out of all his sunglasses this time, as well as a few ophthalmic frames and lenses.

So, in one week, Dr. Morgan lost about 200 sunglasses and other ophthalmic goods, totaling $30,000 in merchandise.

“They took my whole Maui Jim display twice,” he says, laughing about it now.

Two times in one week, burglars broke into optometrist Gary Morgan’s office in Chandler, Ariz., making off with $30,000 in glasses.
But it wasn’t funny at the time.

“The thieves obviously cased the office beforehand because they knew where the motion detectors were,” Dr. Morgan says. In the first burglary, “they broke a front widow, which did not have a breakage sensor, and avoided the motion detector in the dispensary.” Without entering the office, the thieves were able to take the sunglasses right out of the displays at the front window. The alarm never went off.

“We acted pretty quickly,” Dr. Morgan says. “I had a company come and install security film on the inside of the windows.” He also ordered an upgrade in the alarm system with glass-break sensors, as well as a siren, flashing light and security cameras.

But though he acted quickly, it wasn’t quick enough. When the thieves came back again a few nights later, only the window film had been installed. “So they broke a window, cut a hole in the security film, and then reached in and cut around the window to roll the security film back.”

This time, the thieves did come into the office. When they did so, they tripped the motion sensor, which set off the alarm and alerted the police.

But by the time the cops arrived, the thieves had already cleaned the place out and were gone. “The police told me they were on the scene in three or four minutes, so these guys must have worked really fast once they got in,” Dr. Morgan says. 

To add insult to injury, the thefts put a crimp in sales. “We didn’t have any inventory to sell,” he says. “So we were doing eye exams and asking patients to come back in a week once we had our inventory replenished.”

Dr. Morgan’s office was hit during a crime wave of “eyeglass thefts” in the Phoenix area in which thieves struck at 11 optometry offices in about two weeks in August 2008.
“And then it just ended,” Dr. Morgan says.

Later, “we heard that a couple weeks before [our burglaries], there had been a whole string of these types of robberies in New Mexico, in the Santa Fe and Albuquerque area,” Dr. Morgan says.

An Attractive Optical
Optometrist Kelvin Nguyen’s office is located in an upscale community in northern San Diego County. Dr. Nguyen says the locals are mostly retirees as well as a growing number of young professionals. It doesn’t exactly sound like a high crime area, does it?

But to thieves, Dr. Nguyen’s office was ripe for the picking. His office was hit twice in less than a year.

“I think they targeted our office because we carry mostly mid- to high-end glasses and have an attractive optical,” he says. “They probably checked out our office during prior visits.”

The first time, in October 2008, the thieves came through the office’s side door and took three laptops. The second time, in May 2009, they came through the same door again, even though Dr. Nguyen had beefed up the locks.

“The second time around, they took almost $50,000 worth of plano sunglasses and some high-end glasses,” he says. “We had security alarms during the first break-in and security cameras during the second break-in. But after the second incident, we installed metal gates inside the doors and windows.”

Since installing the gates, he’s had no further losses. But, to his knowledge, the burglars who robbed him were never caught.

Copper and Robbers
One day, optometrist Aleta Gong, whose office is in a quiet, residential neighborhood in Phoenix, got a call at home from a staff member. It seems the water had been shut off. When Dr. Gong’s husband drove to the practice to check it out, he found that the large copper water pipe leading into the building had been sawed off and taken away.

“It cost us quite a bit to replace and repair, and to install a lockable cage over the copper pipe, but it was worth it,” Dr. Gong says. “We’ve also had numerous people climb on our flat roof to steal the copper pipes in the air conditioning units. We finally had to put up razor wiring on the whole perimeter of the roof to help discourage people from climbing up there.”

Crime can strike at any time, even a lazy Sunday afternoon. That’s when a thief broke through the front door of Dr. Gong’s office, and made off with a computer and an entire locked Maui Jim display. “We joked that someone at the swap meet is going to have a really nice display case,” she says.

The video camera recorded it all—but the burglar wore a hat and kept his head down so he couldn’t be identified.

“After that happened, I felt violated,” Dr. Gong says. “I could not watch the whole tape of the burglary because it made me feel a little sick.”

Following the break-in, she had roll shutters installed on the doors and windows. No burglar has broken in since.

There’s a happy ending, of sorts, to the string of burglaries in Phoenix. In November 2009, more than a year after Dr. Morgan’s office was plundered, police officers carried out an undercover investigation that resulted in the arrest of 12 people for more than 20 burglaries of optometry offices in the Phoenix area. Police recovered about $100,000 in stolen property, including TVs, electronics, laptops, designer clothes—as well as 120 pairs of eyeglasses worth $500 to $1,000 a pair.

Unfortunately, though, Dr. Morgan never got back a penny.

Theft Prevention Tips
Optometrists interviewed for this article learned these lessons the hard way. Here’s their advice for preventing—or at least minimizing—theft.

• Realize that you’re vulnerable. “Even if you think you’re in a safe neighborhood, you’re probably not,” says Gary Morgan, O.D.

“We’re all vulnerable to these crimes,” says Kelvin Nguyen, O.D. “It’s not a matter of if, but when you’ll be the next target. Anyone who doesn’t take security as a serious matter is in denial.”

They’re not pretty—but these gates are pretty effective at thwarting theft. After two break-ins at his high-end San Diego practice, optometrist Kelvin Nguyen had these gates installed, and he hasn’t had a break-in since.
• Make theft difficult. It sounds obvious, but the most important way to prevent a break-in and minimize losses is to make it difficult for thieves to get in. Like everyone these days, even thieves are in a hurry! Once your alarm goes off, they only have a few minutes before the police arrive. So, the more time it takes to enter your office, the less time they have to steal.

Dr. Morgan says to install not only a security system that contacts the local police department, “but have an external horn or siren on your building so it wakes up the neighborhood. Also install a flashing security light. These things make it pretty obvious that something’s going on when your alarm goes off.”

Thieves prefer to work in the shadows, so install bright exterior lights that illuminate the outside of your office after hours.

Protect your windows. After the first theft at his practice, Dr. Morgan had security film and glass-break sensors installed on his windows.

Dr. Nguyen took it one step further and installed accordion-like window gates for when the office is closed. The gates are hidden out of the way during office hours. “I used to think, ‘Those gates are ugly. I’m not putting that in my office.’” He changed his mind after his second break in. “Security cameras, alarms and locks are not adequate anymore. I believe the gates truly deterred the thieves from another attempt at breaking in our office,” Dr. Nguyen says.

Inside your office, “having security cameras is a pretty good deterrent,” Dr. Morgan says. “If we had had security cameras in place, the thieves might not have been as comfortable coming in and casing the place out.”

• Secure your valuables. Keep your valuable inventory secured both during office hours and after closing. “We now lock up our most expensive sunglasses, and I have asked the opticians to just show a few frames at a time,” says Aleta Gong, O.D.

After hours, store designer and high-end frames out of sight in a locked room or container.

• Be suspicious. “You have to be very vigilant about who’s walking in and out of your optical,” Dr. Morgan says. “Always have someone on the floor. Don’t leave your dispensary unattended.”

Shoplifters often work in pairs. One will distract an employee while the other slips frames into an oversized coat or bag. “It gets hot here [in San Diego], so when we see people dressed in long overcoats in the summer, or when one person comes in to ask at the front desk for an appointment and another looks at glasses, we try to have staff out in the optical to help,” Dr. Gong says.

• Sound the alarm. If your office is burglarized or even if you see suspicious characters skulking in your dispensary, “it helps to get the word out to other O.D.s in the community,” Dr. Gong says. Call your local and state optometric association, and e-mail the other optometrists in your town, she says.

• Make friends on the force. If anything good came out of Dr. Morgan’s two break-ins, he got to know the local cops pretty well. “And since then, we’ve helped them with a couple charity events.” Now, “officers will sit [in their cars] in our back parking lot at night just doing their police reports.”

Dr. Gong asked the community action department of her local police force to come talk to her staff about what to do in case of a robbery or an out of control patient. “It has really helped all of us,” she says. “I asked the staff to watch over each other, and to not be afraid to call Crime Stoppers [a citizen crime watch organization] if they are at all concerned.”