Hair Extensions Robberies

Beauty businesses have been hit with the costly trauma of being robbed of one of their most expensive offerings—hair extensions.
by Kendall Septon
thinkstock.com/iStockphoto.com

At first glance, the YouTube surveillance footage capturing the April 2011 break-in at Hair Divas Distributors seems like it could be the start to any routine burglary as four hooded crooks kick in the front door of a San Leandro, California-based beauty business just after sunrise.

It’s not until halfway through the video that it becomes obvious that this isn’t just any typical heist. The footage shows the group bypass the cash register and head straight for the rear of the store, quickly scooping up armfuls of the store’s most expensive human-hair wigs and extensions before heading back out the door.

In less than three minutes, owner Anne Davis was robbed of nearly $60,000 worth of merchandise before police even arrived at the scene, she recalls. One burglar even had a spare moment to stop and smile for the surveillance camera on his way out. “It was absolutely devastating,” she says. “They cleaned me out.” Unfortunately, Davis’ story is far from unique.

In the past year, weave thieves have led a string of hair heists at beauty businesses around the country, making headlines by stealing up to tens of thousands of dollars worth of stores’ most prized human-hair merchandise and in some cases carrying out violence.

The thefts hit their peak in the spring and summer of 2011 when burglars cased several beauty businesses in Atlanta and its suburbs, stealing nearly $100,000 worth of hair and, at times, violently. During that same period, a salon in a suburb outside of Houston was robbed of $150,000 worth of hair weaves, and the doors of a Chicago beauty supply were pried open by thieves who stole about $90,000 worth of hair. A shop owner in Dearborn, Michigan, was even shot to death during a robbery of more than 80 packages of hair extensions worth $10,000. Since then, the shocking amount of hair being stolen has seemed to taper, but the crimes themselves remain prevalent.

[Image: thinkstock.com/iStockphoto.com]

Hair Extensions Robberies, p.2

Courtesy of Anne Davis, owner of Hair Divas Distributors

BLACK GOLD

Known for its silky, lustrous texture and chemically unprocessed strands, the highest quality wigs and extensions on the market are made from what is referred to as “Remy” or “virgin” hair. Sourced from India, the hair is willingly donated by throngs of Hindu devotees across the country to temples such as Tirumala Venkateswara as an offering to the god Venkateswara symbolizing one’s religious devotion and surrender of ego. The temples then auction off the hair to outside buyers as means of raising funds for temple and community programs, as well as feeding the needy. For Indian temples, this is an extremely lucrative business. At the Tirumala temple—which is one of the country’s most lucrative—there is reportedly close to 200,000 pounds of hair auctioned off every other month, bringing in tens of millions of dollars a year.

What makes the hair so unique and prized by top beauty retailers and customers alike is that it is collected in a single cut. This method allows for the preservation and alignment of the hair’s shingle-like outer cuticle layer, allowing the hair to look the most natural, remain relatively tangle-free—even with frequent washing—and keep its durability as it’s worn for up to a year. “Not all hair is created equal. If you want the best quality hair on the market, this is it,” says Mark Yudell, president of Remy Capillus in Philadelphia—one of the few U.S.-based manufacturers of human-hair extensions.

In fact, while wearing Remy extensions has been promoted as a new, hot trend—thanks to Hollywood celebrities like Beyoncé, Jessica Simpson and Eva Longoria, who sport the fashion accessory on a regular basis—the commodity has actually been on the market since at least the early 80s. That’s when the Indian temples started realizing a profit could be made from the hair, which they used to burn or sell to other countries to use in fertilizers, says Yudell.

In recent years, it has been a combination of several factors—such as temples becoming more selective about the buyers they sell the hair to and charging more for the higher-quality strands, and the demand from more U.S. customers—that has contributed to the recent rash of thefts nationwide, suggests Yudell. “It all comes down to the basic principles of supply and demand,” he says. “Thanks to Hollywood, more and more people want the look, so the demand has gone through the roof. The temples realize this too, and they are getting smarter about what they charge for their best hair. “Like oil, there isn’t an unlimited supply of premium Remy hair,” he adds.

[Image: Courtesy of Anne Davis, owner of Hair Divas Distributors]

Hair Extensions Robberies, p.3

Courtesy of Anne Davis, owner of Hair Divas Distributors

“HOT” HAIR

Take any pricey product with a profitable resell value, that is also difficult to track once stolen, and you’ve got a perfect recipe for theft, says Sgt. Frank Quinn of the major offenders division with the Houston police department. “These thefts are just like anything else; the trends are constantly changing depending on what’s hot and in demand at the time,” says Quinn. “Hair extensions are an expensive product,
and there are plenty of people who are willing to pay good money for them right now on the underground market. It makes them an easy target.”

Oftentimes selling for as much as $250 to $300 a pack—with at least two packs needed on average to complete a weave—Remy hair extensions give crooks the opportunity to make a high-profit margin—and quick. Once stolen, Quinn says it isn’t uncommon to see thieves take the hair to the streets—selling the commodity out of the backs of vans; peddling their stolen goods to underhanded stylists; or even marketing the merchandise via fake websites or eBay.com accounts. In the last year alone, Houston’s major offenders division worked nearly 30 to 35 of these types of cases, with reason to believe that organized crime rings were behind many of the offenses, says Quinn. The FBI’s property crimes unit, which handles these kinds of thefts, refused to comment on the issue.

Lisa Amosu, owner of the My Trendy Place salon in Houston, may be considered one of the unluckiest victims of this kind of theft to date. In May 2011, the suspect who burglarized her business pulled iron bars off of the windows, then outsmarted motion detectors by slithering across the floor to the back storeroom with three large duffel bags attached to his body. By the time the culprit was finished, she says he made off with more than $150,000 in human-hair extensions, wigs and hairpieces. “These hair thieves are not stupid by a long shot,” says Amosu. “Human-hair extensions are a hot commodity, and let’s face it, the hair business is basically recession proof. “There are many women out there who will forego paying an important bill just so they can purchase high quality hair.”

[Image: Courtesy of Anne Davis, owner of Hair Divas Distributors]

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Courtesy of Anne Davis, owner of Hair Divas Distributors

KEEPING YOURSELF AND YOUR HAIR SAFE

As many beauty-supply and salon owners have found out the hard way, there are no easy or cheap solutions to protecting human-hair merchandise. In many cases, weave thieves are far from being amateurs and conjure up extremely elaborate schemes to pull off heists, warns Quinn. He recalls one instance where a suspect tunneled through the adjoining wall of a vacant next-door business to avoid tripping the alarms. At one Philadelphia-based beauty supply, thieves have been brazen enough to jump over the counter to grab packs of hair. They have also tried stuffing hair into baby strollers or even using their children to hide the goods, says the store’s manager, who refused to give her name for fear of being targeted.

In light of this threat, beauty—supply and salon owners—especially those who have already experienced theft—have begun taking the matter seriously. Some have installed bulletproof glass, hired additional security guards and/or installed pricey security systems to keep their inventory safe.

Since the break-in at her shop, Davis hasn’t held back beefing up security at her business. Davis says she spent nearly $5,500 in out-of-pocket expenses to replace all her windows and doors with tempered glass, to add three surveillance cameras, and to install a bullhorn outside the entrance that would “wake up the whole neighborhood within a five-mile radius.” And that’s in addition to the surveillance cameras, electronically buzzed door and expensive alarm system she already had in place. “If they get through all of this, I’ll be at a loss,” she says. “I’ve been really loud about what’s happened to me—between bringing it to the media and posting the footage on YouTube and Facebook—hopefully this will make whoever did this think twice before coming here again.”

Similarly, Amosu said she has also shelled out an additional $2,000 for extra security at her salon. Her investments have included adding an extra security camera, Blu-ray and high-definition real-time blackout cameras as well as 24-hour online monitoring. Hair extensions are no longer kept on location, but are brought in daily, and the store now has its own private detective that sits in as a client on a regular basis to help identify thieves and evaluate the security operation, she says.

[Image: Courtesy of Anne Davis, owner of Hair Divas Distributors]

Hair Extensions Robberies, p.5

Courtesy of Alpha High Theft Solutions

As a less expensive alternative, Quinn says that Houston beauty business owners devised a tagging system and have enlisted the help of the police department. These days, if officers bust a suspect with loads of hair that appears stolen, police have a way of returning the goods since each piece of merchandise is identifiable by an individual owner’s mark, such as a bar code or numbering system. Owners should also think about moving the hair deeper into the store to make it more difficult to get to and consider securing merchandise in a steel cage or gun safe, Quinn suggests. “I think what has made the biggest difference is that all of the owners got together and approached us from the start with what was happening and an idea of how we could help,” says Quinn. “I would encourage owners who are worried about this sort of thing happening at their stores to work out a similar system with their local police as soon as possible.”

But what else is out there to keep your merchandise from walking out the door? Some companies that specialize in keeping merchandise secure, such as Alpha High Theft Solutions, believe they might have answers. The company—a division of Checkpoint Systems—offers the Fashion2 Hard Tag. The device costs about 50 cents apiece and is flexible enough to be pinned through the woven part of the hair extension without causing damage, while also small enough to fit—and be nondescript—inside most packaging. The company boasts several additional products that can be attached to merchandise and will sound an alarm if taken without going through the cash-register area.

AFTERMATH

Even after all of the high-tech, expensive security upgrades to her business, Davis says she still has days when she can’t shake the uneasy feeling that someday she might be robbed again. Nevertheless, she says she’ll be prepared if it does.

“I will probably always carry fear around in the back of my mind; especially right now, when the economy is bad and people are desperate,” says Davis. “Sometimes I think twice about what I’m doing, but I have the belief that I was brought to this, and it’s what I’m meant to be doing. No one is going to force me to quit this business except me.” n

Kendall Septon is a freelance writer based in Denver.

[Image: Courtesy of Alpha High Theft Solutions]