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A week before November's rent was due, Jeff Wiecks walked into a supply room at work and saw that his jacket had been moved. The pockets had been unzipped and the contents — a handful of quarters, receipts and a stick of deodorant — scattered about. His wallet was gone.

Within hours, hundreds of dollars in purchases had been racked up on his debit card <NO1><NO>at Radio Shack, Rite Aid and two gas stations.

"We weren't sure we'd have enough money for rent, we're living a little by the dollar right now," said Wiecks, 44, a father of three.

Fortunately, he didn't have to find out; nine days after the theft, his credit union made good on the loss.

<NO1><NO>The pilfering<NO1><NO> of <NO1><NO>credit and debit cards is <NO1><NO>a main reason overall theft was up by nearly 50 percent in Santa Rosa during the first half of 2009. It is the most common type of fraud, and small-<NO1><NO>scale, habitual thieves are the main culprits, investigators say.

<NO1><NO><NO1><NO><NO1><NO><NO1><NO><NO1><NO><NO1><NO><NO1><NO>"Stealing through the use of credit cards is the trend that we're seeing more than anything else," said Sgt. Michael Lazzarini of the Santa Rosa Police Department's property crimes division.

The dramatic increase in thefts during the first half of 2009 stands out after a 20 percent drop during the same period in 2008, according to data collected from local agencies by the FBI. Property crimes as a whole were up 34 percent in 2009. The only exception was a 5 percent drop in burglaries.

Theft, particularly credit card fraud, is a tricky crime to solve, detectives say. Thieves generally limit how much they spend. Paper trails go cold.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle is that victims delay reporting thefts to police.

"People assume that the cops aren't going to be able to do anything about it, so there's a delay in the reporting of it," Lazzarini said. "Sometimes we're not notified until people get their monthly statements."

<NO1><NO>Wiecks' first step, like that of most people who realize a credit or debit card has gone missing, was to call his bank.

<NO1><NO><NO1><NO>As Wiecks, a maintenance employee at Oliver's Market on Montecito Boulevard, tried to reach <NO1><NO>the Redwood Credit Union, which holds his account, a woman tried unsuccessfully to withdraw $60 from his account at a Flamingo Resort Hotel ATM, according to bank statements and surveillance videos.

Then, she headed to Rite Aid and spent $139.50. She next rang up charges at the Quality Gas and Auto Service on Fourth Street and a Valero on Farmers Lane.

Just after 3 p.m., a Radio Shack clerk helped her pick out an eight gigabyte iPod Touch and a two-year warranty plan at a cost of about $250.

"Even though she didn't spell my name right, they sold a high-dollar item to her," Wiecks said.

The splurge ended after three hours when Wiecks' bank canceled the card.

"You feel victimized," Wiecks said. "Five hundred dollars has been taken out of your account for a shopping spree."

A Redwood Credit Union employee encouraged him to file a police report, Wiecks said, which he did eight days after his wallet was taken. The supply room is behind a curtain near the store's public restrooms, said Frank Camilleri, the store director.

He belives it was a crime of opportunity.

"We have shoplifting, just like anywhere," Camilleri said.

Police investigators pulled images from store surveillance videos, and an officer recognized the woman from a burglary case. In a police lineup, the Radio Shack clerk told police that Julie Cipallo, 37, of Windsor was the customer who bought the iPod.

Police arrested Cipallo on Dec. 7 after she appeared in court on charges from eight other cases against her accusing her of burglary, credit card fraud, identity theft, drug charges and willful harm or injury to a child.

<NO1><NO>"It's pretty consistent to see them go in patterns like this," Lazzarini said.

People who have served prison terms for robbery and theft are the most likely of all convicted criminals to be arrested again, according to a Justice Department study.

Sgt. Glenn Lawrence, property crimes detective with the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office, said his department had received 418 cases of credit card fraud by mid-December, an increase he estimated at about five percent over 2008.

"I see those cases coming across my desk daily," Lawrence said. "Usually it's a lot of small amounts. The account will be used for $50 here, $100 here, $400 here. There's usually a line that they draw. They're fairly savvy in that they keep amounts low."

In another case, a fingerprint connected Megan Gibson, 21, of Santa Rosa to a forged check, Lazzarini said. Gibson was arrested Dec. 30 on suspicion of forgery, her third arrest since November on charges alleging fraud, grand theft, burglary and identity theft.

Theft is quick, easy and often related to drugs, Lazzarini said, and the best way to prevent it is to keep your wallet on you and never leave items in your car.

Redwood Credit Union has increased efforts to educate customers on ways to prevent fraud, the first step of which is to monitor bank statements closely, said Robin McKenzie, a senior vice president.