Most newspaper subscribers put their home delivery service on hold when they go away to avoid returning to a pile of papers in the driveway, which could also tip off prospective burglars that no one's home. However, that pre-emptive measure appears to have backfired for many Los Angeles Times subscribers after a team of burglars got their hands on the paper distributor’s lists of vacation delivery holds.
Investigators believe 51-year-old Duane Van Tuinen repeatedly stole information from the Times while he worked as a contract office machine repairman for the paper’s distributors. He then passed the information on to a group of at least four other thieves, who cased victims’ houses and carried out the burglaries. The group is suspected of stealing at least $1 million worth of property.
An investigation into the spate of burglaries led detectives to a West Covina storage locker last Thursday, where they recovered hundreds of pieces of stolen property, including musical instruments, computers, jewelry and collectibles.
“Although much of the stolen property has been returned to the rightful owners, we are still trying to locate additional victims,” Detective Jack Jordan of the Major Crimes Bureau said.
The Los Angeles County Sherriff’s Department knows of at least 25 burglaries from the San Gabriel Valley cities of Hacienda Heights, Diamond Bar, Walnut and Chino Hills, but it believes there have been as many as 75 more. They are asking anyone who placed themselves on the Los Angeles Times vacation list and was subsequently burglarized to contact the police.
Nancy Sullivan, a Times spokeswoman, claimed that the newspaper has made changes in its delivery policies since the incident.
"The Los Angeles Times was contacted several months ago about criminal activity which may have been linked to subscriber delivery information. We immediately launched an internal review and collaborated with the Sheriff's Department as matters unfolded, including honoring their request to keep the matter confidential because the investigation was active," Sullivan said in the Times' own account of the crimes. "The Times sympathizes with those who have been harmed and joins the other victims in thanking the Sheriff's Department for their hard work."
Sullivan said the paper would no longer share any vacation information with its distributors.
The Tribune Co., the Los Angeles Times' corporate parent, recently emerged from bankruptcy after seeking bankruptcy protection in December 2008. The bankruptcy was one of the longest in U.S. corporate history, largely due to fierce infighting among the investment firms that assumed ownership of the Tribune. Its current financial situation raises concerns that the company may not have had the resources in place to properly protect its information.
A column on protecting your home from burglars that appeared in the Los Angeles Times in 2010 warned that “Stopping the newspaper, putting your mail on hold and asking the neighbors to keep an eye on your place only goes so far.”
The article offers tips like putting several interior lamps or TVs on timers, tuning a radio to a talk station and leaving it on or turning the ringer on the phone down.
For a number of the paper’s own subscribers, however, these tips were no match for informed burglars.