Times must be hard.
That is what some people who operate candy and gum machines for charity are saying after being hit with a rash of thefts in the last two weeks.
"With the economy being so bad, people are desperate," said Beth Levitt, who with her husband, Ted, operates T.C. Vending in Reisterstown.
Mr. Levitt owns a deli in Annapolis, but started operating machines that dispense gum, peanuts or fruit-flavored candy five years ago to benefit the American Cancer Society after his mother, Ruth, died of cancer.
The Levitts' 2,500 machines in the city and several surrounding counties have raised more than $100,000 so far for the charity. "I have a goal of a million dollars to raise in my mother's name," Mr. Levitt said.
So far, at least 24 of the Levitts' machines in the Highlandtown and Dundalk areas have been hit.
But the Levitts are not alone. Larry Roos has 200 gum machines that raise money for the Metropolitan Firefighters Burn Center Fund, which benefits the burn center at the Francis Scott Key Medical Center. Six of his machines located in the area of the hospital in Southeast Baltimore have been stolen and three more have been emptied of their money, which if full usually amounts to between $8 and $12.
"It's just kind of discouraging," said Mr. Roos, a Baltimore County firefighter who has been operating the machines for about two years and donates about $2,500 each year to the burn center. "They don't have a whole lot of money in them, but people, they go for anything, it seems. . . . It kind of hits home because our machines for the burn center here are all local, the money stays here."
The thief or thieves are posing as company employees. "They're going into businesses and they're telling people that they're servicing the machines," Mrs. Levitt said.
A master key that opens the machines is fairly easy to obtain. The thefts have been discovered as one of their employees VTC services the machines on his regular rounds, so the Levitts fear the number could be much higher.
"I'm sure it's still going on . . . ," Mrs. Levitt said.
Mr. Roos and the Levitts agree that there are several problems with stopping the thefts.
"It's easy to steal money from these machines and people know that nothing much will happen to them because it's petty theft," Mrs. Levitt said. Also, merchants volunteer to have the machines placed in their businesses "and they don't want to be hassled. So they don't even pay attention to who walks in" to remove money from them, she said.
Mr. Roos agrees. "A little gum ball machine is not high on their list of priorities to monitor and so someone can get in there during the day and clean us out," he said.
Mr. Roos says the police have been helpful when he has reported the thefts, but he is not optimistic about an arrest. "When we call, they've been responsive, but it's pretty difficult," he said. "I'm sure they've got more important things to do."
Poice Agent Kevin Matthews of the Southeastern District's property crimes unit agreed that the thefts would be difficult to investigate.
"Unless somebody sees it, it's going to be real hard to prove," he said. "If they fingerprint, there are going to be 50 million sets of prints on the machine."
The vendors said the only way to stop the thefts will be to raise the consciousness of the merchants where the machines are placed.
"Most of the time, these guys [the thieves] don't want to be hassled. They're not professionals," Mrs. Levitt said. "If you start hassling them, they are going to walk out the door. And that is the last you're ever going to see of them."