CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Authorities in Charlotte say a multistate theft ring is stealing wallets and credit cards from customers at Whole Foods markets and Panera Bread cafes.
The Charlotte Observer reports that a search warrant says members of a South American ring spend thousands of dollars with the stolen credit cards. Police said the thieves often buy gift cards, which are difficult to trace.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg police have been investigating the thefts since September. The department has also been in contact with detectives in a Colorado town who are two months into their own statewide investigation of similar thefts.
Officer B.C. Kipp says the local investigation has identified several groups of men and women who have victimized residents in Charlotte, and states including Massachusetts, New Jersey, California, Kentucky and Colorado.
Police in Charlotte aren't saying how many people have been victimized or how much has been stolen.
Officials at Texas-based Whole Foods said they weren't aware of a crime ring targeting the chain.
In a statement, Panera said it could not comment on the current investigation while adding that the safety of its customers and employees is a priority.
The newspaper said a search of police and media reports turned up several thefts that matched Kipp's description.
In December, police reported a credit-card theft at a Panera in North Andover, Mass. The card was later used in a Target in New Hampshire. Two suspects were captured on camera, according to news reports.
A year ago, police in Boulder, Colo., reported a similar wallet theft at that city's Whole Foods. The victim was shopping when she said her cart was rammed by one being pushed by a male. In the resulting commotion, she didn't realize her wallet had been taken, according to police.
Surveillance photos taken a short time later showed two women using the cards to make thousands of dollars in purchases at various stores in Boulder.
Kim Kobel, a Boulder police spokeswoman, said credit card theft in Boulder, as in most cities, has become a chronic problem, particularly among female shoppers who put purses in the top baskets of their carts.
"The purse is wide open and the wallet is hanging out. They reach for something on the shelf while someone is walking by and it's gone. It only takes a second," she said.
Information from: The Charlotte Observer, http://www.charlotteobserver.com