The 25-year-old gas station attendant who reported that he was robbed of $327 last month wound up facing theft and false reporting charges and admitting to Howard County police that he was a victim of hard economic times.
"My life was about to fall apart. Bills were piling up, and my wife was really nagging me to get a better job. I felt like a brick wall was falling down on me," he told police in explaining why he had pocketed the money and reported a holdup.
For Lt. Daniel M. Davis, who commands the criminal investigation division, the gas station attendant was sounding a refrain police heard often in the mid-1970s, when there was a downturn in the economy.
In recent months, as was the case during the '70s, false reports of property crimes and robberies have been increasing -- although police are not keeping statistics, Lieutenant Davis said.
"It seems to be an indicator that times are tough," he said.
Sgt. Stephen R. Doarnberger, spokesman for the Baltimore County police, said officers in his county have seen a similar trend.
"There appears to be some correlation between questionable reports and unemployment," he said. "In our county, it seems to be geographically based in the Dundalk and Essex areas, where there is greater unemployment.
"We receive a number of complaints about break-ins at the end of the month in which the citizen reports large amounts of money taken, when coincidently the rent is due the first of the month," Sergeant Doarnberger said.
In other jurisdictions, however, false reports to cover thefts and robberies have not been as pronounced.
"We had a case of a man burning up his car because his insurance payments were too high, and once in a while a kid working a gas station files a false report of a robbery, but there is no pattern developing yet," said Officer V. Richard Molloy, a spokesman for the Anne Arundel County police.
Baltimore detectives also have seen no significant number of false reports of robberies or burglaries in the past year, said Agent Arlene Jenkins, the department spokeswoman.
But the problem in Howard County has reached the point where Lieutenant Davis said he has informed the department's training division about a growing pattern of "recession crimes."
He wants investigating officers "to be somewhat more skeptical and more questioning when thefts and robberies are reported," he said. "Based on what has happened in the past, I anticipate a busier crime season because of the difficult economic times."
Lieutenant Davis cited a second example of false reporting, one in which a longtime warehouse manager was charged, involving the theft of some $200,000 worth of videotapes that were recovered at an accomplice's residence.
Police initially were told that the warehouse had been broken into on various occasions, but a video surveillance of the warehouse showed differently, Lieutenant Davis said. Instead, boxes of videotapes were being tossed over the fence to an accomplice.
The other area of concern, Lieutenant Davis said, is that officers have to be watchful that "victims of residential burglaries are not filing false or inflated insurance claims."
Responding to his concerns, the training division plans to inform patrol officers of the increasing number of false reports involving theft and robbery, but to stress that they must still maintain a concern for a legitimate victim, said Lt. Angus Park, commander of training.
"We want the uniform officers to be a little more alert to stories that don't match," Lieutenant Park said. "However, we don't want them to convey the impression that we suspect a wrong report because that would be unfair to a real victim, who is undergoing an emotional trauma.
"The officers have to walk a real tightrope, but we want them to do their investigations with more an eye to a false report than they normally do," he said.