TAMPA - They hit fast and in the dark of night. The burglars strike rent drop boxes at apartment complexes and mobile home parks.
Hillsborough Sheriff's Cpl. Bruce Crumpler suspects multiple organized rings are behind the burglaries. It is a low-tech crime that yields easy money. Make-shift devices coated with sticky substances are used to steal checks and money orders.
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In just the last five months, the I-team found rent drop box thieves hit a total of 52 apartment complexes and mobile home parks. Forty-eight of the break-ins took place in Hillsborough County, another four in Lakeland.
For tenants like Marjorie McCatty, the fallout can be both costly and stressful. In some cases, like McCatty's, the landlord demands the tenant repay the $700 rent or face eviction.
The stolen money orders and checks, which range from $400 to $800 are sent out of state to be washed, forged and cashed. McCatty's wrote "Rose Harbor Apartments" on the payee line, which was later altered.
Sentral Dugard lives at the Marquis apartments in Tampa, where surveillance video caught the crime on tape. Investigators say burglars altered and cashed her money order in Las Vegas. Still, her landlord demanded she pay the rent for March again.
In all 48 cases, only one arrest has been made. Deputies charged Colbert Valcin Jr. on April 17 after he cashed two money orders stolen from the St. Croix Apartment complex. Investigators are working to determine whether he was involved in any of the other cases.
I contacted two dozen of the targeted apartment complexes. Nine of them say they have replaced the old drop boxes with new secure ones. Only five of the complexes we asked say they have removed them altogether.
Landord/tenant attorneys advise consumers to avoid drop boxes. Pay in person and get a receipt, or mail a check to the landlord.
The sheriff's office plans to meet with the coalition for apartment complexes and ask that they consider options other than rent drop boxes. Meanwhile, both tenants in our story say their landlords eventually backed off the demand to have them pay the rent twice.