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The Freeway Is Not The Perfect Getaway Thanks To Business Watch

It may not be as well known as Williamsburg , but Stafford County , Virginia , located just off of Interstate 95, is indeed rich in our nation's history. It was here, on his family's 600 acre farm, that George Washington spent much of his childhood and is believed to have cut down that famous cherry tree, where stone used in the construction of the White House and U.S. Capitol derives, and where celebrated Indian Princess Pocahantas was kidnapped and brought to Jamestown.

While it continues to preserve its historical roots and its small town charm, the Stafford County of today is also a place that has experienced tremendous residential and commercial development. Just 40 miles south of Washington , DC , it has become a primary haven for commuters who work in the Nation's Capital and Northern Virginia . In fact, in just five years, the population of the county has skyrocketed from 92,000 to over 120,000. As its population has increased, so, too, have the number of businesses that have established themselves within the community, including several Fortune 500 companies.

By 2004, along with the growth the county had enjoyed had also come a significant challenge. Because a number of the county's retail businesses are located just off the interstate, they had become a prime target for criminals looking for a quick and easy escape route. As such, several trends had developed. “One of the trends we had been seeing in the county was criminals using counterfeit bills and bogus traveler's checks in retail establishments located along I-95,” explained Deputy J.L. Hamilton, who serves in the Crime Prevention Unit of the Stafford County Sheriff's Office. Another trend that had become prevalent in the county was purse larcenies at area grocery stores. In these cases, two or three criminals would work together to distract shoppers from their carts so they could steal the wallets from their purses. The criminals would then purchase gift cards in high dollar amounts, flee, and travel to retail establishments in nearby Maryland or Washington , DC where they would use the cards to purchase high-ticket items.

“The biggest difficulty we faced in apprehending the criminals who perpetrated these types of crimes was they were typically not residents but were just passing through by way of the interstate, so it became challenging to track them down.” Challenging, yes. Impossible, no.

Redirecting Criminal Traffic

As calls for service at local businesses continued to escalate, it became apparent that some serious action was necessary. Accordingly, soon after Deputy Hamilton joined the Sheriff's Office in December of 2004, a new program designed to protect the county's commercial community was launched. Hamilton, who had just entered into retirement after serving as an officer and detective in nearby Prince William County for 26 years, had worked in crime prevention for 14 of those years, so starting a Business Watch program was not unfamiliar territory and seemed like a logical step for the county. “I knew Business Watch would work because I had witnessed the results it had produced in Prince William County ,” explained Hamilton . “In this case, I felt like I had an even greater interest than ever before because Stafford County is home, and has been my home for the past 27 years.”

For the past two years, Business Watch has served as one of the key components in the county's Crime Prevention Unit, which also includes Citizens Police Academy , TRIAD, and Neighborhood Watch. As of late, two of the county's largest retail centers, Stafford Marketplace and Doc Stone Commons , act as Business Watch sponsors. As part of the program, retail establishments within the two centers – as well as other are businesses – are offered various materials and training, designed to help prevent them from becoming victims of crime. “We allow businesses that do not serve as sponsors to participate in the different types of training we offer, such as robbery prevention, shoplifting prevention, and loss prevention training and participate in the exchange of information with other businesses for a very simple reason: we believe communication is the key to success, and the key to keeping our businesses and residents safe.”

Hamilton keeps businesses updated on community goings on through a sophisticated email system that has the capability to target specific lists. “We may have a criminal who uses a bogus credit card at a bank in the area, for instance, to obtain a cash advance. Once we have the details, we notify other banks and provide them with information on what they should be looking for, as well as ways they can protect themselves from such crimes.” The system enables Hamilton to single out specific types of businesses or send an alert to the entire list. For those businesses that do not have access to email, Hamilton either faxes information or hand delivers flyers containing information about pertinent events.

Enjoying the Impact

The Business Watch program has undoubtedly generated remarkable results. Hamilton reports that the trend in purse larcenies at local retail establishments has dramatically decreased and, because of a newly enacted policy, so has credit card fraud. With this policy, as soon as someone has reported a missing wallet following a visit to a retail establishment, an immediate call is made to other retail outlets to be on the lookout for credit cards containing the victim's name.

In addition, a new program called Scam Busters has also emerged. Only a few months old, Hamilton believes this program will better equip crime prevention officers with the information they need to solve crimes by enabling them to partner with neighboring jurisdictions to exchange information. “Let's say we have an open larceny case that we are having trouble solving. Through Scam Busters, we are able to partner with other jurisdictions that are likely locations for suspects to travel to and exchange information about them and the details of the crimes they have committed.” Hamilton says there was no medium in place for this type of information exchange until now, and he anticipates it will serve as a great help in solving crimes in the future.

“We know Business Watch works and we know we are putting our efforts in the right place because we are seeing extremely positive results,” said Hamilton, who hopes to continue developing better and faster ways to communicate with the business community. He also hopes to expand the program to include businesses in other parts of the county. “Of course, we haven't completely eliminated crimes associated with the business community, but we are pleased that these types of crimes are occurring on a much smaller scale than they had in the past, and Business Watch is certainly a major reason for this success.”