By  on August 21, 2009

Five J.C. Penney stores in three states have been robbed of jewelry and other merchandise worth millions since June by brazen burglars who broke in through the roofs.

The most recent heists this week were filmed by surveillance cameras that showed a pair of masked, glove-wearing thieves. Police said they descended into two stores in Covington and Lafayette, La., via ropes, evoking images of a Hollywood thriller. Robbers hit a Penney’s store in Indianapolis in June and units in the Houston suburbs of Pasadena and Rosenberg in July.

The losses at the off-mall stores — primarily gold and diamond jewelry, denim and other items — are “into the millions,” Penney’s spokesman Tim Lyons said Thursday.

Authorities are trying to determine if all five robberies are linked. There have been no arrests. The Plano, Tex.-based retail chain is offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the burglars.

“Unfortunately, it is part of the trend that is going on in the industry with organized retail crime,” Lyons said. “The loss has been substantial in each case. In some of the cases they spent a considerable amount of time in the store.”

The Penney’s unit in Covington was robbed early Sunday and the surveillance video shows two men carrying 2-by-4 wooden planks and black garbage bags for the loot. The same scenario played out at a Penney’s in Lafayette, 125 miles away, on Wednesday.

“Obviously, they had some previous knowledge of the establishment,” said Lt. Craig Stansbury, a spokesman for the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s office. “They were pretty precise and knew exactly what they were after.”

Large-scale retail theft is on the rise, said Joseph LaRocca, senior adviser for asset protection at the National Retail Federation.

“Organized retail crime gangs are figuring out new ways and paths of least resistance to get in and get merchandise and ultimately liquidate it on the secondary market,” LaRocca said. “Rooftop burglaries are a tactic being used by these groups. By cutting though the roof or glass skylights or even a glass panel, those aren’t necessarily alarmed the same way that utility doors and hatches might be and someone can come in virtually undetected.”

An NRF survey in April found that 92 percent of retailers had been the victim of organized theft in the previous 12 months compared with 85 percent in April 2008, he noted. And 73 percent said the problem was increasing versus 66 percent in 2008.

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