GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WZZM) -- Local real estate agents are staying vigilant during spring open houses following the theft of prescription medications by people posing as interested buyers.
Homeowners in several Kent County communities, including Cannon and Plainfield townships, reported the disappearance of Vicodin and Ambien.
"In most cases they pair with someone else,'' said Julie Rietberg, CEO of the Grand Rapids Association of Realtors. "One or two of them will keep the Realtor occupied while the other one goes and ransacks through the drawers and the cupboards.''
It began last August when a real estate agent holding an open house noticed a suspicious woman opening drawers in the bathroom. She left after being confronted by the agent. The homeowner then reported that prescription Ambien was missing. Another real estate agent working down the road reported that prescription Vicodin was taken during an open house the same day.
The agent recognized the woman when she appeared at an open house in February and asked that she sign in. The woman was driving a black GMC SUV which matched the vehicle seen in the two August thefts.
"When there's a specific incident, a specific report, we usually send out a special bulletin, kind of a beware bulletin,'' Rietberg said. "It's not going to happen too many times before we get their number, if you will.''
That's what happened in the most recent rash of thefts. The Kent County Sheriff's Department last week arrested a 43-year-old woman who admitted to stealing prescription medication from about 10 open houses over the past several months. She'll be in court June 6 to face charges of larceny from a building.
It is the third time local Realtors have dealt with thefts during open houses. In fall, 2011, a homeowner in Grandville and two in Grand Rapids Township reported thefts. Stolen items included Vicodin, electronics, jewelry and rolled coins.
In each case, suspects parked down the street from where the open house was being held. One of the men distracted the Realtor as the other lifted items from the home.
The first round of open house thefts was reported in March, 2011.
"Typically when they come through the house they're not giving their real name of course – if they give a name at all,'' Rietberg said. "Whether it's to use it themselves or to market elsewhere, it's apparently worth something.''
The Drug Enforcement Administration said open house thefts mirrors the rise in prescription drug abuse. In most cases, the suspects are stealing drugs for personal use.
"This has been on our radar since about 2007,'' said Rich Isaacson, spokesman for the DEA office in Detroit. "As the prescription drug problem gets worse, you have more people who in theory take desperate measures to get their hands on prescription drugs.''
Drugs stolen during open houses include painkillers, anti-anxiety drugs, ADHD drugs, Xanax and Valium. Although pills stolen at an open house are primarily used by the thief, the DEA has found them on the black market.
In San Diego, real estate agents working with police formed a Safe Homes Coalition after open house thefts soared in southern California earlier this year.
The coalition took to the airwaves to raise awareness of prescription drug abuse and drug thefts occurring at open houses. As part of the campaign, agents are providing clients with plastic bags to store prescription drugs prior to an open house.
In Pennsylvania, a Realtor association put together a "Protect Your Meds'' flyer urging home sellers to lock away medications during open houses.
"Our Realtors will typically recommend that prior to open houses you actually lock those things away and not just hide them in a cupboard where you think they're going to be safe,'' Rietberg said. "Someone who is coming to an open house with the intent of taking property, they aren't going to be afraid of opening those cupboard doors and looking for it.''