Woman used ‘sleight of hand’ distraction scheme to steal from metro-area retail stores – Twin Cities

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Prosecutors allege a woman belonging to a traveling organized crime group pulled off “sleight of hand” distraction thefts at several retail stores throughout the metro area over the past five months.

Baronita Rostas, 23, was arrested last week in St. Louis Park and charged Tuesday in Hennepin County District Court with one felony count of theft by swindle for allegedly bilking stores out of $6,280 between March 14 and July 27.

Baronita Rostas (Courtesy of Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office)

Rostas made an initial appearance on the charge Wednesday, when a judge set bail at $100,000. Rostas requested an interpreter, according to court records, which lists her address as “unknown.” An attorney is not included in court records.

The criminal complaint alleges that Rostas hit up stores in Hennepin, Dakota, Ramsey and Washington counties, in addition to ones in North Carolina and Iowa, and that each transaction was documented on either store surveillance video or through transactions and images.

Hennepin County prosecutors said Wednesday the investigation is ongoing and they may bring additional charges against Rostas, who has five active warrants in Oregon, Ohio and Pennsylvania for fraud, theft and larceny.

The case is the result of an investigation by the Minnesota Department of Commerce Fraud Bureau, along with the Hennepin County Attorney’s office and investigators with TJX Companies, a retailer that operates T.J. Maxx, Marshalls, HomeGoods, Sierra and other stores around the U.S.

“This is a complex case, involving several agencies and a significant amount of work,” Hennepin County Attorney Mary Moriarty said in a Wednesday statement. “This sort of high-volume, organized fraud has a significant impact on businesses and their employees, and ultimately impacts all of us through higher prices.”

According to the criminal complaint, the commerce fraud bureau began an investigation in June after TJX investigators identified Rostas and several other members of the group, which had been engaged in the “quick change” scheme at retail stores around the U.S. since at least 2018.

Investigators say the ruse works like this: A thief approaches a cashier with a stack of cash and counts it out loud. With a finger on the stack, the thief distracts the cashier and slips out cash, hoping the cashier does not count it. The thief then returns the merchandise at a different store for its full value.

Over two days in March, Rostas allegedly stole $1,000 from a Marshalls in Eagan, $900 from a Marshalls in Roseville and a total of $1,800 from Old Navy stores in St. Louis Park and Albertville and at an Athleta store in Maple Grove.

Rostas stole $1,800 during two separate “sleight of hand” schemes at a Sierra store in Richfield on May 2, the complaint said.

After Rostas pulled off the scheme at stores in Gaston, N.C., and West Des Moines, Iowa, on July 26, she traveled back to Minnesota and tried it at a T.J. Maxx in Eagan the next day, the complaint said.

Investigators were alerted in “real time” and began surveillance of Rostas as she left the store and went to several other retail stores throughout the metro area, the complaint said. Rostas tried the scheme at a Burlington store in Richfield, before she and her husband made several merchandise returns.

Investigators later learned that Rostas made off with $780 at a Sierra store in Woodbury on July 27, prior to their surveillance, the complaint said.

St. Louis Park police arrested Rostas near the Hilton Double Tree Hotel, where she had been staying with her husband. She was in possession of “large amounts of cash” and retail merchandise, receipts and gift cards, the complaint said.

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