Published February 13, 2018
A small group of amateur detectives, all of them immigrants, have been using their collective experience of being burgled to help catch thieves in Reykjavík. Out of fear of reprisals from Iceland’s criminal elements, they did not want to be identified, but they have been working with the police to thwart those hoping to fence stolen items.
That there have been a rash of break-ins in Reykjavík is no secret. When Elsa (not her real name) was burgled last December, thieves made off with computers, hard drives and other electronics while her husband was out shopping. Especially harrowing was that he almost caught the thieves in the act.
“They tried breaking into the upstairs neighbour’s, but my husband was only out for fifteen minutes,” she told us. “They ran away when they saw him.”
Elsa shared her experience on Facebook, and it wasn’t long before another couple contacted her. They compared notes, noticing that their cases were very similar. As the discussion grew, more immigrants reported a similar pattern of break-ins: the thieves arrived on foot, using a backpack they found in the homes themselves, targeting items that could be easily sold on social media. They even noticed that footprints found at the scene at different homes were the same. This led them to believe they were all dealing with the same burglars.
At this point, most people would simply go to the police and let them take it from there. However, Elsa was less than satisfied with their response. “They just ignored us, telling us, ‘We don’t have evidence, we can’t do anything.’,” she said. Through persistence, she was able to find a detective willing to help them, but that didn’t stop them from taking matters into their own hands.
The hunt is on
Elsa shared with Grapevine various photos, videos, and screenshots of the vigilante’s work. They use a two-prong approach: using electronic means to locate some of the stolen items, and using fake Facebook accounts to respond to suspicious Facebook posts offering things such as laptops and GoPro cameras for sale, in the hopes of catching the thieves trying to fence their goods.
Not all of their leads have panned out. On one occasion, a camera being offered for sale on Facebook looked very similar to a camera that had been stolen from one of them. Using a fake Facebook profile, they set up a meet and possible buy downtown. On further inspection, it turned out to be a different camera altogether.
However, there have been some achievements. Using tracking apps for phones and laptops, they were able to trace a few of their items to the same address. After one person in their group was recently burgled a second time, the police were able to apprehend one suspect, thanks in part to the evidence the vigilantes had gathered, while another two have since fled the country.
Police have their work cut out for them
Skúli Jónsson, a deputy chief of police, told Grapevine that they thoroughly investigate every case, and have received numerous tips from the general public. At the same time, break-ins are not easy cases to crack.
“As you can imagine, when thousands of things are stolen every year, you naturally ask yourself how you’re supposed to tackle this,” he said. “It can be difficult.”
Part of this difficulty is the ambiguous nature of the social media marketplace. An item being offered for sale that is missing a serial number or other identifying features is naturally suspicious, he says, but even then, the seller might have bought the item that way in good faith.
Best offense is good defense
Skúli advises that the best way to fight burglaries is to go on the defensive. Taking out an insurance policy on valuables can help recoup losses. Keeping a record of your electronics, including any receipts and serial numbers, is also helpful. Most of all, he says, it’s important to keep your home locked down tight when you leave, and to keep valuables out of view.
For Elsa, the defensive is fine, but the vigilantes are still continuing their investigations; archiving evidence, scouring sales posts on social media, and setting up sting operations.
Elsa says she does this because she has a loved one in the military. “I knew I wouldn’t be wasting my time helping anyone, because they were all very afraid,” she said. “I knew that if I was doing this, helping other people, that he would be proud of me.”