Armed robberies have spiked in Santa Ana, California as criminals take advantage of the acceptance and even requirement of face masks due to the coronavirus.
COVID-19 was the "perfect manual" for criminals, a shop owner told CBS Los Angeles. "The mask, the sunshade, and a hoodie. You don't know who's coming, who's walking in," he said.
Police said that the surge in crime could be linked to offenders who had been released from prison due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Experts say that wearing masks anonymized people, emboldening them to criminal and deviant behavior.
Criminals are exploiting the social acceptance of face masks due to the coronavirus in order to stage a series of armed robberies in southern California.
Last week, two men, one wearing a mask, robbed a gas station in the city of Santa Ana at gunpoint.
"We're sitting here not knowing who's going to walk through that door," Elias Khawan, the owner, told CBS Los Angeles.
"It's horrible," he said. "I mean, I know we have to take certain measures because of what's happening with COVID-19, but it's the perfect script or manual for a robber — the mask, the sunshade, and a hoodie."
He added his staff are now terrified to work the late-night shift.
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"It's the norm," Cpl. Anthony Bertagna, with Santa Ana PD, told CBS Los Angeles. "So we're seeing more and more suspects wearing the mask and using that to their benefit."
Santa Ana police added that robberies had increased by 50% since the lockdown. The release of some inmates, previously from the area, due to the pandemic could be behind the crime wave, local police believe.
Across the United States crimes are being pulled off in no small part because so many of us are now wearing masks, according to the Associated Press.
In March, two men held up the Aqueduct racetrack in Queens, New York wearing the same kind of surgical masks as many racing fans. At gunpoint, they robbed three workers of the $250,000 they were moving from gaming machines to a safe.
Other robberies involving suspects wearing surgical masks have occurred in North Carolina, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere in recent weeks.
"In the past if you did a search warrant and you found surgical masks, that would be highly indicative of something (suspicious)," said FBI Special Agent Lisa MacNamara, who investigated the string of robberies in Connecticut, told AP. "Now everybody has masks or latex gloves."
Bryanna Fox, a former FBI Agent and associate professor at the University of South Florida's criminology department, said that a side effect of the widespread wearing of masks to protect against COVID-19 would be more deviant behavior in society.
She told WTOP News, based in Washington D.C., that studies have found "people who wear masks feel more enabled and empowered to do things that they normally wouldn't have done if their face was seen in public."
"Being anonymized has always been associated with more deviant and criminal behavior," ranging from bank robberies to the Ku Klux Klan, she said.
With the social acceptance of masks, people could be tempted to commit crimes for the first time, while hardened criminals would become even more emboldened, she warned.
Meanwhile, there have been at least three cases of people wearing KKK-style hoods and masks emblazoned with swastikas to go shopping.