HOUSTON -- A traveling thief using a simple but sneaky trick has scammed tens of thousands of dollars from a chain of Texas stores, according to law enforcement authorities.

The bald and bearded man shown on surveillance video has allegedly strolled into Lowe's Home Improvement stores dozens of times and calmly used barcodes from cheaper merchandise to buy expensive appliances.

Investigators want to withhold some specific details until he's caught, but they say the thief has repeatedly hit stores in a number of Texas cities, including Austin, Houston and the Spring area of north Harris County.

'It's a lot of the high-dollar merchandise, a lot of big electronics equipment: stoves, refrigerators, things of that nature,' said Mark Herman, an assistant chief with Harris Co. Constable's Office, Precinct 4. 'On each hit, he's making up to thousands of dollars. We have estimated just in the stores he has hit he has gotten away with about $29,000 worth of merchandise.'

In one incident, for example, the thief walked out of the Lowe's store in Spring with a tankless water heater worth more than $900, but he paid less than $150.

'And of course, he purchases it and makes about an 800-something dollar profit,' Herman says.

Law enforcement authorities believe he may have struck other retailers besides Lowe's.  Surveillance video shows him behaving with confidence as he calmly commits his crimes.

'So that tells us, as investigators, that this guy's been doing this a while,' Herman says. 'And he's good at it.'

Switching price tags on merchandise is an old trick, but the development of barcodes has changed the process. Now thieves who don't want to switch out tags in stores can simply reproduce them at home using scanners and personal computers, then print them onto adhesive shipping labels.

'It's simple enough, if you have the barcode itself and a scanner,' says retail security expert J. Patrick Murphy of LPT Security Consultants. 'You just scan that bar code into your computer and you can print a label easy enough from that picture of the bar code. Now if you want to be very sophisticated, I guess you could go out and purchase the software that is readily available at any computer store and just simply punch in the number that's at the bottom of the bar code and it'll create that bar code for you.'

These thieves have grown so practiced, Murphy says, some of them have collected catalogs of phony barcodes printed on adhesive labels ready for instantaneous use on any merchandise.

Whatever they buy at discount prices, Murphy says, they can usually sell on Craigslist or eBay.  Sometimes, he says, they simply return to the same store on another day with a doctored receipt and collect a full price refund.

Law enforcement authorities believe they know how this thief is committing his crime, Herman says, but they don't want to reveal too much before he's caught.  And his face shows so clearly in the surveillance video, they're fairly confident someone will telephone in a tip about his identity.

The thief has used several fake identification cards with a series of similar names, including James Morris, James Mason, James Moon, David Morris, James David.

Authorities are asking anyone with information on the crimes to either contact Crime Stoppers or call Deputy M. Etheredge or Sgt. G. Beck at the Harris County Constable's Office Pct. 4 at 281-376-3472.

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