Rash of herbal store thefts gets attention of Richmond RCMP

A rash of costly after-hour break-ins at Chinese herbal medicine stores has left business owners frustrated and demanding action from police and city officials.

Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie, Coun. Chak Au, Richmond RCMP Sgt. Cam Kowalski, and some 30 to 40 Chinese medicine business owners met over dinner last week to discuss the concerns about the targeted thefts of bird nests, dried abalone, Korean ginseng and sea cucumber, among other things.

Each break-in has cost the businesses between $30,000 and $130,000, and investigators said it’s apparent that the thieves know what they are looking for, and are targeting high-value items, wasting no time in breaking into the store and then exiting in a matter of minutes.

“The price of some products are more expensive than gold per ounce,” Kowalski noted. “Clearly, it’s people with knowledge of these herbs and various dried products.”

Nine break-ins and thefts occurred between July 1 and Nov. 14 of last year, Kowalski told The Richmond Review. The majority were break-ins, though others involved thefts in which the store owners were intentionally distracted by the perpetrators while the thefts took place.

A collaborative working group has been formed, including the Richmond Chinese business community, local Mounties and the city.

Proactive and reactive measures are being enacted to deal with the thefts, which Kowalski suspects isn’t unique to Richmond. Investigators will be reaching out to surrounding communities to find out if similar thefts have been happening elsewhere.

Among the tactics intended to deter thefts and break-ins are store hardening measures, which includes strategies dealing with the placement and visibility of pricey herbs and the presence of surveillance cameras and what images they capture.

Mounties have instituted directed patrols around the types of businesses that have been targeted, including foot patrols, and police have helped heighten awareness and developed a “comprehensive working relationship with them over the past two months,” Kowalski said.

While there are Chinese herbal stores in malls such as Lansdowne Centre, the bandits have been focusing on those situated in strip malls.

Police do have video surveillance footage, which is still being analyzed to see if police can identify the perpetrators. Multiple people are involved, and in several instances, the bandits have covered their faces.

“We are certainly taking it seriously,” Kowalski said.

Although investigators are only aware of local thefts, Kowalski said these incident have a greater impact, as the stolen merchandise is being sold to businesses elsewhere in the Lower Mainland.

“It’s quite a progressive approach we’re taking.”

Au said since the meetings with police, the concerned merchants feel much better about the improved dialogue.

Since the middle of November, Au said at least another four or five merchants have been targeted.

What brought this issue to a head was an incident in November, when, according to Au, a merchant called police about an 8 a.m. break-in, but police didn’t arrive for 20 minutes. Afterward, a police spokesperson told the merchants the response time was reasonable.

While the Chinese-language media have been covering this story with big headlines for months, that hasn’t been the case elsewhere.

Au said that’s a sign that this community is still divided, where one sector doesn’t know what’s going on in the other.

That’s a very real and disconcerting disconnect that’s certainly “less than ideal,” Au said.

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