VOL. XX, NO. 1
BUTTERNUT BITES #8:
Security at Coin Shows
By Steve Ellsworth
After reading and adhering to my previous recommendations on storing, driving or flying with your coins, you have finally made it to the coin show without incident. Now you can let your guard down…or can you?
Willie Sutton, one of the most notorious bank robbers of all time, was asked once why he chose to rob banks. His reply was, “That’s where the money is.” If you are a robber or thief today, where could you best find literally millions of dollars worth of coins and currency in one place and for a far easier picking than a bank? At nearly any coin shows!
Security risks can never be eliminated, but they can be managed to a tolerable level. Security is a constant goal. Vigilance must always be maintained. Be alert and aware of your surroundings. Criminals avoid the vigilant person.
Some of these suggestions you may already know about and practice. Others may be new to you, but when feasible, consider putting them into practice. The more of these suggestions you are able to implement, the lower your risk of becoming a victim. My recommendations and suggestions will be useful and helpful to most collectors and dealers…only if they continually practice these safeguards.
Most security can be developed and divided into four parts: operational security, perimeter security, external security and interior security.
Operational security would be how you operate, also referred to as “your mode of operation.” You need to ask yourself: “What kind of target am I presenting?” Perimeter security is considered the immediate area near your target…your coin collection. For example, at a coin show the area surrounding the facility would be the perimeter. External security is considered the outside shell or walls of the show facility. Internal security would be inside the facility housing the coin show, the walking aisles, the display tables, and anywhere you can physically touch coins. Your objective should be to try to determine ways you can improve and protect each of these four areas.
I have attended and participated in hundreds of coin shows in every region of the United States, as well as a number of coin shows in foreign countries. At some shows the security has been outstanding, others less so, and at some, it has been non-existent. As with all security, it can always be improved. Security methods that worked last year may not necessarily work this year. As a starting point, show officials should have a pre-show security plan and a briefing for all involved show personnel, as well as a more detailed briefing with security personnel. Most police officers, while familiar with many security procedures, may not know the requirements that are unique to numismatics or your particular coin show’s location. A checklist and common do’s and don’ts should be given to security personnel for review prior to the show. As a minimum, these should be reviewed with security personnel prior to starting their shifts. If you do not have a checklist, perhaps this article, along with my previous three articles on security, could be used as a guide.
Conversations about coins in public places, outside of the coin convention or bourse, could invite unwanted attention. An overheard discussion could be tempting to an otherwise honest person. One of the worst and most common security errors I see are collectors and dealers walking around the outside of the coin show, at dinner, hotels and airports, with their entrance badges still attached. When these are worn away from the show, I call these “Please rob me first” badges.
As I have said numerous times in previous articles, “Never, never leave coins unattended in a vehicle,” especially while attending a coin show. Many times at coin shows, collectors ask me if I would be interested in looking at or buying some coins that they have. When I answer yes, they inform me that the coins they wish to sell are in their car trunk in the parking lot. The only way to make it easier for a thief would be to place a sign on your car stating, “Coins here, steal them.”
Coin shows should always register all attendees. Criminals do not like their names and addresses known prior to committing an offense. Some shows require identification during registration. That is even better. If the name and address on the registration card were verified against a picture ID, thievery could be drastically reduced. Larger families using two or three kids to steal under supervision of the adults is a familiar sight in some of the southern shows. Shows charging even a minimal entrance fee discourage many unwanted street people from attending. A name badge should always be issued to all attendees, and security personnel must be vigilant in insisting all attendees wear it in clear view.
At many smaller shows, security can be quite lax. I have seen many times during the pre-show or dealer set-up, customers and collectors are inappropriately allowed to enter before the show officially opens to the public. This lapse in security presents a prime opportunity for a potential thief to have easy access to the coins. Most dealers are very busy during setup and breakdown and can be easily distracted. At larger shows, “Early Bird” badges can be purchased for non-tabled dealers and collectors. I personally know of a number of cases when some dealers and collectors arrived early for the sole purpose of stealing coins. Be extra vigilant during setup and breakdown.
If a show does not have trained armed security, I simply would not attend it. If a show does not have adequate security, exhibitors, dealers and attendees are all at serious risk. I have attended small local coin club shows where the local club provided its own security. This may work in some cases, but unless security personnel are fully aware of the legal ramifications of making an apprehension and a possible arrest, I would advise against it. I recently attended a small rural show and was greeted by an 80-year-old “Barney Fife,” complete with a huge revolver slung low on his leg as though he was ready for a “Gun Smoke” quick draw. I am sure that his hog-leg cannon had not been fired in years. Needless to say, he was ready to blast any would-be bandit. If a robber tried to rob the show while I was there, however, I would have made myself flatter on the ground than a four-day-old Denny’s pancake, in fear of being shot as “Barney” labors to un-holster his giant revolver.
That security tale can be far surpassed. It was a few years ago during a two-day show. At the end of the first day, as I was closing down for the evening, I inquired when the evening security was due to arrive. The show promoter informed me that he himself was the security and that he planned on staying the night in the back room, sleeping on an army cot. I asked his mode of emergency communication. He replied there was a pay phone in the back storage room he could use in an emergency, and he had some quarters should the need arise. I finally asked who was providing security while he slept. He said he has his large dog there with him. I immediately packed up my coins, drove 300 miles and nervously slept with them for the night. I later learned that the “guard” and his dog slept so soundly that, the following morning, both could only be awakened after the arriving dealers pounded on the doors for over ten minutes! If I do not think that the facility is at least minimally secure, I will simply not attend a show.
Some shows have put clauses in their bourse contracts prohibiting dealers from bringing weapons to a coin show while including a paragraph denying any and all responsibility for any theft or injury that may happen to a dealer. This seems illogical to any security minded person. Is the public informed during registration that they are not allowed to bring a licensed firearm on the bourse? If a show does not intend to advice the public about firearm restrictions, then why would they attempt to deny a dealer, who has a legal license to carry a concealed weapon, to carry it? If a coin show decides to post a sign at the entrance, the sign may as well read, “No Firearms Allowed, Except for Bandits.” Are dealers who carry hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of merchandise expected not to exercise their second amendment right to ensure their won safety while traveling? Surely some coin show organizers are not suggesting that dealers who elect to protect themselves and exercise their second amendment right leave an unsecured firearm in their hotel room or vehicle?
Thirty-four states allow a citizen who needs to carry a weapon to apply for a Concealed Carry Weapon (CCW) permit. In most states, after a thorough background check and the fulfillment of all necessary requirements, a permit can be issued. Numerous robberies and thefts happen to collectors and dealer traveling to, during, and immediately following coin shows.
In light of some recent court rulings, organizations and their boards may want to simply eliminate any statement concerning firearms. Individuals who had a legal and valid concealed firearm permit, who were not allowed to carry the firearm, and were later injured by a criminal, have sued the organization. The court ruled that the organization, by not allowing a licensed individual with a CCW to protect themselves had in fact insured the safety of all those in or near the premises and could be held liable for the injuries. I do no think that most coin club boards want to take on the fiduciary responsibility of insuring the safety of everyone in route to, attending, or returning from a convention. There is a reason that no gun show in America has ever been successfully robbed. There may be a lesson to be learned here.
Late night events and parties can be fun at coin conventions, but remember that if the next day involves coin business, moderation should be practiced. If you have coins with you, and your travel arrangements will require you to stay in the host hotel of a major show after the final day’s closing, I would recommend moving to another location for the night and keeping your coins with you at all times. By staying in a property that housed many coin folks for several days, you are a very vulnerable lone ranger.
At nearly every major coin show you will see dealers and collectors leaving during the show to go to hotels and restaurants while carrying or wheeling coins and currency. It is quire obvious to even the dumbest thief that if they are even a little bit patient, they will have an opportunity to make a score. Individuals sometimes approach dealers or collectors to go “look at a deal” in a home office or hotel room, away from the security of the show, to make a potential buy. The ploy is usually “There is just too much material for me to carry all the way to the show. If you want to buy it, you will just have to come and see it.” The only way it could be more dangerous is if they say, “Bring a lot of cash with you, perhaps $5,000 or $6,000, since I do not accept checks!” Avoid taking coins out of the secure area of the bourse until you are ready to go home. I would also advise against leaving with any numismatic materials at any time during a multiple day show, especially if you were staying at or near the show-sponsored property.
If possible, do a drive-by visual security inspection of the entire show’s perimeter. Devote enough time to familiarize yourself with the surroundings and look for possible danger areas that could be a security problem. Try to think like a thief and “case” the facility looking for vulnerabilities. Check for any dangerous situations or suspicious-looking individuals. It might be worth a call to the show’s sponsors to ask about security prior to your decision to attend. As a collector or dealer, learn to trust your instincts. At most professionally run shows, security personnel should be in the off-loading and loading area. If you are a bourse chairman of a show, make sure that your security personnel are providing security, not helping load and unload dealers’ coins and cases, which they sometimes do in an effort to be helpful.
The physical security of the facility during and after show hours is a paramount concern for security personnel. Most convention hall doors are designed to open from the inside with a bar or latch. These must be either secured by a physical barrier or assigned to a specific security person during the show. After closing, bar latches, chains and locks will be needed for every entrance. Trashcans and restrooms are the normal storage places for stolen goods. The thieves, in or outside the facility, can retrieve stolen items later. One dishonest staff person found this tried and true method to be successful for years before being caught. I do not want to think how many employees and former employees have access to most facilities. Once the facility is secured, absolutely no one should be admitted without the bourse chairperson’s specific and coordinated written approval. A few years ago, an entire show was robbed at gunpoint after security personnel answered the door for an after-hour delivery. The thieves made the mistake of going only a few miles to a motel to divide the look where he police arrested them.
The first thing to do is always secure your coins. When unloading or packing your vehicle, always remember, “Coins out first when arriving; coins in last when departing.” This means that if you must make two trips to load at a show, you will have to secure your inventory at all times. Work a plan to meet this basic security requirement long before you depart for the show. And do not forget that you are at most risk during setup and breakdown at a show. Nobody is going to look out for you when they are busy with their own tasks – that includes security personnel who are not properly briefed before the show opens for setup. At early every show, many dealers arrive long before security personnel even arrive at the facility. You can see the dealers sitting in their vehicles or standing in groups all exaggerating about the great buy or sale they just made. Many times I have been allowed to enter a show while the security personnel are being briefed. If the security team is being briefed, then who is providing security for me? Absolutely no one!
Lock your cases on top of the table or, better yet, in a large table “body bag” cover. Be sure to ensure that the table is secure. Setup and maintenance personnel have a tendency not to lock the table legs in place, causing the table to collapse and spread coins all over the floor.
Most bourse areas are quite large, and security personnel cannot be everywhere, especially since most like to congregate at the entrance door in the back where the coffee and donuts are. A dishonest staff person would have an easy time of snatching a few items and staying low to avoid being observed by security. Should he be observed, he would have an easy explanation citing job responsibilities. Keep inventory locked up in carrying or display cases at all times, especially at setup and breakdown. If you must leave them unattended, be sure to place locked cases, with a bicycle or chain lock, on top of the backup table, not underneath. I know of numerous situations when coin cases have been removed during setup, during the show, in the evening after the show’s closing and during breakdown. A case locked under a table will allow a thief to work unmolested pilfering the contents without being observed by other dealers, collectors or security personnel.
Be sure to introduce yourself to the dealers on each side of you, behind you and across the aisle. Let them all know that, when they are away from their tables, you will try to keep an eye on their cases, and would they do the same for you. Let them know when you are leaving your table and when you expect to return. But remember, dealers are at a show to but and sell coins, not to “watch my coins.” My suggestion is to lock everything at all times and also ask your neighbor and security personnel to “watch my coins.”
For dealers and exhibitors, table covers, or “body bags” as some call them, which can be zipped up around the display cases and locked like a duffle bag are excellent. They are a strong deterrent to dishonest facility staff and contractors who may be tempted to pilfer a few items if the opportunity presents itself. Most coin cases can be easily opened with most any key. The standard show cases used at most shows only have a few different keyed locks. Most dealers have discovered that the same key will open a number of cases, or a simple screwdriver can turn open the entire lock tumbler mechanism. If you cannot lock up a case in a secure “body bag” cover, then at least sure your sheathed bicycle lock to attach it to a leg of a back stock table, placing the case or bag on top of the table. It never ceases to amaze me how so many :professional” dealers will “pass” on a thousand dollar coin over a ten dollar amount, then at the end of the show, cover hundreds of thousands of dollars in rare coins with an old bed sheet or piece of plastic with a chair on top. Then he walks away thinking all is secure.
A table behind a display table, called a “back-up table” by most dealers, is an open invitation for thieves from all sides. Dealers who leave coins, money pouches or other valuables unsecured on their back tables will eventually be ripped off. I have had non-numismatic items taken during and after show hours from my backup table. Once I complained to security at a major national coin show that items had been removed from my back table. I explained that I was one of the last dealers to leave the previous evening and one of the first dealers to enter the show the following morning. The response from the principal security agent was, “Go complain to one of your dealer friends; that is who most likely stole your items. And besides, we have over 400 tables to watch, and we cannot be everywhere.”
Most insurance policies do not cover “mysterious” or unexplained theft. Some dealers are unaware that if they do not take reasonable precautions expected of a prudent man, their insurance policy may not cover the loss. Is leaving a sheet and a chair on top of an easily opened glass case, with hundreds of thousands of dollars in coin and currency, actions of a prudent man?
Dealers should keep their coin display cases locked when not showing a coin. Sometimes the pull-up lid handles can be removed so a glass suction cup must be used to open the case lid. This precaution will not prevent a theft by a professional, but it will deter the amateur shoplifter.
Be very cautious when helping more than one customer at a time. I can’t tell you how many times dealers, myself included, have been “set up” by two or three thieves. One will ask to see something while another quickly pockets something else.
I personally have had coins stolen by palming, switching, dropping on the floor, dropping in open purses or should bags, coin reference books, into laps and in the ol’ coat pockets – once even by an old and respected coin collector and former customer. But the incident that sticks out most in my mind was when a customer asked if I had a high grade 1909-S VDB Lincoln Cent. I then handed the customer what I thought to be a beautiful MS65 Red Brown slabbed example. After looking at the coin, he informed me that I had handed him a slabbed 1909 P Lincoln cent, not the 1909-S VDB. Sure enough, the previous customer had switched my expensive example for a cheap one in the same holder. To this day, I am not sure if the dealer or the customer had switched and stolen my coin.
Currency is a special favorite to drop between pages of books and reference material while thieves are looking at it. Just at they do at the tables in Las Vegas, I would insist that all coins be kept on top of the table, in clear view at all times.
Establish an amount that you consider to be an expensive coin, whether it is $100, $500 or $1,000. Any coins or currency exceeding that amount should be priced on the reverse of the coin flip. You do not need to advertise that you carry very valuable coins to a potential bandit.
If you are looking at a dealer’s coin and want to pass on it, be sure to personally give it back to him. Do not simply leave it on top of the case for the dealer to get to when he has a moment. I have had coins stolen that were previously viewed by good customers who simply left the coins on top of the case, assuming I would find them later and replace them in my locked case. Coins left on top of a case can be stolen in an instant, especially if the dealer is distracted. Few full-time dealers have not had inventory stolen this way.
Be cautious of customers more concerned with you and their surroundings than with the coin they have asked to see. Professional shoplifters and pickpockets will almost always operate with one or more accomplices. The stolen coin is immediately passed from the “lifter” to a “carrier.” With most professional shoplifter teams, the coin is passed off from the first “carrier” to even a “second carrier.” If the lifter has used a “distracter” there will be nearly always a three-person team working. If you are quick enough to catch the “lifter,” he/she will usually not have the coin on them when they are caught.
Thieves watch for tables where multiple customers are being helped at once. They feed on the knowledge that most dealers are willing to forfeit security for greed. So when during a flurry of business they politely ask, “May I see that coin or possibly those two or three coins?” Their opportunity to palm one is enhanced. Most dealers hardly even look up from their table to acknowledge the thief before handing the coins over. With any customer who wants to see more than one coin, count out loud the number you are placing on the table, and be sure he or she also counts with you. When the customer is finished looking, count the coins out loud as they are returned.
When a coin is sold, replace it when another coin or a “sold” cold as quickly as possible to fill the empty space. You can then learn to train your eye to spot open “holes” in your cases. Recently in a New York show, a long time regular collector and show attendee was caught pocketing a coin. When security personnel had the thief empty his pockets, there were additional coins in his pocket stolen from eleven other dealers. The amazing part is that not one of the eleven had even known anything was missing. All the coins were eventually returned to the rightful owners. It is a sad commentary, but unless the coin is a special one, most dealers will never realize when a coin was stolen.
I have been told or strongly suspect that a number of advanced collectors and some dealers are known thieves. I strongly advocate that when a thief is caught, the concerned parties prosecute them to the full extent of the law, regardless of the value of the stolen coins. Far too often I have seen the exposed thief simply be asked to leave the show, only to be seen again at another show in a different city. An interesting note that is supported by most police investigators and polygraphs: when a thief is caught and confesses, the amount of goods or money they confess to stealing is normally about 10% of the amount actually taken.
It still never ceases to amaze me how a very intelligent dealer will not think twice about letting anyone with a dealer badge have complete access to his inventory and allow him to rummage through his case. I know of four well-respected dealers, members of numerous organizations, who have been caught stealing and are still attending coin shows.
When you are walking the floor of a show, use a zippered shoulder bag and keep it on your shoulder to carry your coins. Some shoulder bags now have internal wire in the shoulder strap, to help prevent a “cut and run” purse thief. When you remove it, get into the habit of placing it between your feet. Do not sit at a table, bent over a case, studying a coin with your bag behind you or on a chair next to you. If you are using wheels to roll your coin case around with you, keep it touching you at all times. If a dealer’s table is crowded, making security difficult…wait. If you can’t keep your coins with you cat all times, simply do not take them.
If you’re a good customer of a respected dealer and plan to attend a multi-day show, ask if you can secure your locked bag at his table for the evening. You can also check with the show security as they sometimes offer an overnight secure check-in room for show attendees’ coins. When offered, armed security personnel always man these.
All coins, checks and extra cash should be locked in your case and in a locked body bag table cover in a secured bourse for the evening. Large amounts of cash should not be taken outside the coin show until you are returning home. Taking large amounts of cash from the show to dinner or to your hotel room is just plain foolish. If the show’s facility is secure enough to leave hundreds of thousands of dollars of rare coins in it, then why do some dealers feel insecure about leaving a couple of thousand dollars in cash at the same location. It defies logic.
When possible, use checks with dealers who know you and travelers’ checks for those who don’t. Most established dealers will also accept Visa, Master Charge or American Express, but you may lose a possible discount on your purchase by using them. Each day make a listing of all the checks as you receive them, and immediately endorse them “For Deposit Only.” Should the checks be lost or stolen prior to deposit, this will make cashing them more difficult for most thieves. The list should be in a separate location from the checks themselves. It is a good idea to routinely use an invoice or receipt and note the buyer’s name and method of payment. Towards the end of the show, try to keep your cash on hand to a minimum, using extra cash to pay for purchases. If you are buying a very expensive coin or collection, ask if the dealer can ship them to you if you feel uncomfortable traveling with it. The few extra dollars you pay in shipping is negligible. Moreover, sales tax does not apply in some states if the coins are shipped. At some major shows, the United States Postal Service has a booth to assist dealers and collectors with this security problem.
I will only make one observation on accepting checks in payment for a purchase. Nowhere on the planet are out-of-town checks from total strangers so readily accepted by so many naïve dealers than at a coin show. Recently at the FUN show, with a willing accomplice, a criminal passed thousands of dollars in phony checks, most written in the mount of about $500, to many of the dealers who had set up. Only weeks after the show was the deed discovered, when the flurry of dealers realized that the same individual had stung all of them. Unless you or another dealer you know personally and respect can vouch for the integrity of the buyer, simply offer to ship the coins after his/her check clears your bank.
When you begin to pack at the end of a coin show, avoid any unnecessary conversations. Dealers are most vulnerable during this time, and any well-meaning question or conversation could be an invitation to an observant thief and a potential loss for the dealer. For a professional dealer, this is not a good time for lots of warm thank yous and departing good-byes. I have personally lost coins when a well-meaning customer or dealer talked with me while I was packing to depart a coin show.
In summary, security is your own personal responsibility. Put your trust in yourself and your own mode of operation or Operational Security. If you think that coin security personnel would get into a gun battle and risk their lives to protect you or your coins, you might just as well think that all people will always agree to every coin’s grade and value. A show’s planned security is only a supplement, not a solution to your own security and safety at a show.
One final note I am often asked which coin shows have the best security. I have set up at an average of 40 shows a year since 1994. During that time, I have seen “the good, the bad, and the ugly” in show security. Numerous shows have excellent security; however, I would rate the following as the “Butternut TEN: The Best of the Best in Coin Show Security for the Year 2001.”
- South Carolina Numismatic Association, Greenville, SC. Security is provided by off-duty uniformed South Carolina State Troopers. Security is excellent in and out of the facility during setup and breakdown with specialized weapons and equipment readily available at closing. Additional physical security measures are taken in the evenings. Registration and nametags are required for all attendees. The troopers are vigilant, keeping an eye on attendees, dealers and their inventory during the entire show.
- Cleveland Coin Expo, Strongsville, OH. Security is provided by off-duty uniformed Strongsville Police. Security is provided in and out of the facility during setup and breakdown with specialized weapons and equipment readily available. Additional physical security measures on all entrances are taken in the evenings.
- Long Beach Coin Expo, Long Beach, CA. Security is provided by off-duty Long Beach Police with identifiable “Security” jackets. Amply security is provided in and out of the facility during setup and breakdown with numerous plain-clothes officers continually working the floor from the moment the show opens until it closes. Registration and nametags are required for all attendees.
- Texas Numismatic Association, Ft. Worth, TX. Off-duty plain-clothes Euless Police provide security. Ample security is provided in and out of the facility during setup and breakdown with plain-clothes officers continually working the floor from the moment the shows open until it closes. Registration and nametags are required for all attendees. In addition, the security supervisor is a nationally recognized expert in numismatic thefts. The show normally is held at the same location in conjunction with a very large gun show, which would make it really difficult for a potential bandit to be successful.
- American Numismatic Association Mid-Winter 2001 Convention, Salt Lake City, UT. Security was provided by off-duty uniformed Salt Lake City Police and supplemented by a private security contractor. Security was provided in and out of the facility during setup and breakdown. Registration and nametags were required for all attendees. A Salt Lake City police officer was named to the convention committee and coordinated the event with the city’s police force, so all were made aware of how valuable the items were at the convention. Salt Lake City Police were visible…everywhere. In addition, Utah has a concealed weapon carry law which allows lawful citizens to be armed nearly everywhere, a right that is practiced by most. This security stands out as the best at any ANA show that I have attended.
- Alabama State Convention, Bessemer, AL. Security is provided by off-duty uniformed Bessemer Police. Security is provided in and out of the facility during setup and breakdown. Registration and nametags are required for all attendees. Security personnel are extra diligent with continual monitoring of the bourse, and they do not congregate in a group at the front door or the coffee and donut stand.
- Trevose Coin Show, Trevose, PA. Even though it is only a thirty-table, one-day show, they still use two off-duty plain clothes Philadelphia police officers to provide security. Ample security is provided in and out of the facility during setup and breakdown with both plain-clothes officers continually working the floor.
- Blue Ridge Numismatic Association, Dalton, GA. Security is provided by off duty uniformed Whitfield County Sheriffs. Security is provided in and out of the facility during setup and breakdown. Registration and nametags are required for all attendees.
- WESPEX, White Plains, NY. Plain-clothes off-duty NYPD officers, supplemented by uniformed Westchester County Police in the evenings, provide security. Security is provided in and out of the facility during setup and breakdown. Registration and nametags are required for all attendees.
- Crab State Coin Show, Lanham, MD. Security is provided by a private security contractor and supplemented by off-duty uniformed Prince George County police. Security is vigilant in and out of the facility during setup and breakdown. Registration and nametags are required for all attendees.
This paper is not intended in any way to be a legal or tactical guide. All information is from open non-restricted sources. Your thoughts and ideas are always welcome. Address them to: Colonel Steven Ellsworth, c/o BUTTERNUT, Post Office Box 498, Clifton, Virginia 20124-0498. Website: www.Butternut.org Email: Butternut.org
Col. Steven Ellsworth is a highly decorated retired Army Colonel with over 32 years of service. His many assignments include serving in the Army’s elite Special Forces or Green Berets as a Ranger and as a Pathfinder. He has had assignments as a Physical, Intelligence and Communication Security Inspector. He has received specialized training in anti-terrorist, physical, intelligence and personal protective security. He currently is a fulltime coin dealer and collector and serves as the ANA’s Regional Coordinator of the Mid-Atlantic Region and is a current board member of the NSDR.