Increase in Criminal Use of Coronavirus Face Masks to Blend in While Committing Crimes, Police Warn

An increase in the use of surgical masks amid the novel coronavirus health crisis is proving to be a unique challenge for law enforcement nationwide.

Recommended by health officials to limit the spread of COVID-19, face coverings are now making life difficult for police tasked with identifying and apprehending crooks. They warn criminals are taking advantage of the situation to blend in with the public.

Police say investigations involving the cheap and now-common item have spiked in recent weeks, popping up in armed robberies across the country.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advised citizens to don the masks when venturing out in public spaces in early April, especially in grocery stores and pharmacies, where social distancing can be difficult to maintain.

Richard Bell, police chief of Frackville, Pennsylvania, told the Associated Press that he is aware of seven robberies in his own region in which every suspect was masked. He described the virus outbreak as being a "perfect opportunity" for criminals.

"In the past if you did a search warrant and you found surgical masks, that would be highly indicative of something [suspicious]. Now everybody has masks or latex gloves," FBI Special Agent Lisa MacNamara told the AP, which detailed several such crimes and reported a surge in the wearing of latex gloves has also resulted in fewer fingerprints left at crime scenes.

MacNamara was involved in the investigation of one high-profile series of gas station robberies in Connecticut that resulted in federal charges being made against suspects William Rosario Lopez, 34, and Solimar Rodriguez Gonzalez, 19.

The FBI alleges the pair were involved in at least five heists, with Rosario Lopez entering stores wearing a "surgical-type mask" and armed with a silver pistol, demanding money from cashiers. Gonzalez, who was unmasked, was allegedly a lookout.

It is far from the only recent example.

In one of the more daring heists, in March, two gunmen wearing surgical masks stole over $200,000 from workers at the Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens who were taking the cash from gaming machines to a safe, The New York Times reported.

The same month, San Leandro Police Department in California said a man wearing a surgical mask was arrested for allegedly stealing $780 in energy drinks from Walmart and threatening employees by saying he tested positive for COVID-19.

In Hamilton Township, New Jersey, police released a public appeal after an armed man in a white respirator mask and fishing hat robbed a bank.

Meanwhile, in Greenwich, Connecticut, a man in a face covering and carrying a yellow shopping bag was being hunted by law enforcement after an armed robbery.

One particular early adopter popped up in Smyrna, Georgia, as police confirmed they were searching for a bank robber who wore a surgical mask in every crime. That series of incidents took place in January, months prior to the CDC's advice.

This month, in North Carolina, the sheriff's office released an image of a male suspect who robbed a store while wearing a surgical mask and armed with a machete.

In the state last month, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police sought to identify two men who wore surgical masks during multiple robberies, including one at a Sheraton hotel, The Chatlotte Observer reported, releasing surveillance footage of the suspects.

In Massachusetts, police detained two masked suspects last month who allegedly held up a dollar store and gas station at gunpoint within a half an hour.

In Beaumont, Texas, cops appealed for information on an armed man in a mask who demanded cash from a Valero convenience store before fleeing on foot.

Of course, such cases are not limited to the U.S. In Australia, a suspect wearing a face mask robbed a Melbourne gold dealer, fleeing with the contents of the safe.

Identifying a potential criminal in a sea of innocent face-covered citizens could come down to looking at body language and behavior, Sgt. Ryan Abbott, of the King County Sheriff's Office in Washington, told KCPQ after an April robbery case.

"There are a lot of people wearing masks to protect themselves from COVID-19, and they're not doing anything wrong. But then, there are people and they just don't seem right. If there's something they're doing that's catching your attention then there's likely something not right about it," he said. "A lot of times it can be their movements."

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