A spate of US Botox clinics have reported break-ins and the theft of cosmetic products worth thousands. Whats going on?
The cops in Sugar Land, Texas, classified case number 19-4317 as a business burglary, but that label hardly does it justice. Captured on surveillance video, the scene unfolds like a cross between Desperate Housewives and a low-budget heist movie: a blond woman in black yoga pants and a pink top pulls up to a strip-mall medical spa in a Mercedes SUV , cuts a hole in the spas glass door with a cordless saw, slips inside, and jogs away with two bulging shoulder bags allegedly containing $7,000 worth of anti-ageing products, most of it Botox.
I thought it would be a big, burly guy throwing a brick through the front window, says Alonzo Perez, the owner of BotoxRN, the burgled spa. But this was someone 5ft 1in and 100lb. That was on 23 August. Six days later, a suspect who appeared to be the same woman sawed her way into another BotoxRN spa just up the I-69 in Houston.
For Perez, it was dj vu: lots of broken glass and another $7,000 inventory loss. There were iPads and laptops in the office but they werent touched, he says. This woman had a very specific objective. Perez adds that variations of this crime have become increasingly popular in the area. Yesterday two Houston medical spas called me and said something like this had happened to them in broad daylight: people asked to use the restroom, wandered in back, found the Botox, and stole it.
The Houston Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery clinic was also targeted in August: after receiving about $2,000 worth of Botox and filler injections, a patient breezed past the front desk without paying. The name and contact information she provided might have been fake, but her medical photos (before and after shots are standard procedure in Botox clinics) were authentic. This lady gets the Darwin award, says Dr Clayton Molivar, the plastic surgeon who administered the treatments and later posted the photos to social media, helping to identify the woman. I dont want to see her go to jail, but maybe she should wear an orange suit every Saturday and pick up garbage.
These capers arent unique to Houston. Media outlets across the country have covered true crime stories featuring droll headlines about Botox bandits in Los Angeles and face-filler fraudsters in Washington. This larceny isnt gender specific, either. In January, two men pulled a hit-and-run job at a Los Angeles Botox spa after racking up $4,000 in services. Nor is the crimewave limited to the US. In Britain in February, four men raided a warehouse in Witham, Essex, and made off with a large cache of Azzalure, a botulinum toxin drug similar to Botox. It was, in crook lingo, a big score; police estimated the shipments value at six figures.
Why do people steal Botox? Because its expensive. The drugs manufacturer, Allergan, sells 100 units a vial that fits in the palm of a childs hand for $601. And, as every Kardashian knows, 100 Botox units dont go far. After zapping forehead wrinkles (20 units), crows feet (40 units), bunny lines around the nose (10 units), and those angry 11s between the brows (30 units), theres nothing left for jawline sculpting (thats another 15 to 50 units on each side of the face). A single Botox treatment ranges from $300 to $1,200, depending on how much serum is required and who injects it.
According to the American Society For Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, Botox is by far the most requested aesthetic procedure, with more than 1.8m of them performed last year, totalling over $1bn in sales.
According to Dr Jose Rodriguez-Feliz, a plastic surgeon in Coral Gables, Florida, when thieves make a grab for hundreds of vials at a time from warehouses, they are usually sold at a steep discount to people offering injections without medical licenses: Theres a huge black market for Botox and fillers in south Florida because they are in high demand and very pricey. Everyone in Miami knows a place where an unlicensed dentist is treating patients in his garage with Botox injections.
This year in Shasta county, California, Susan Ann Tancreto was charged with eight felony counts, including unlicensed practice of medicine, mayhem, transporting a controlled substance, and battery with serious bodily injury. As a nurse at a day spa, Tancreto allegedly injected her victims with with Botox and fillers that left some of them, according to the DAs office, with significant facial deformities. She has pleaded not guilty.
Dr Louis Malcmacher, the president of the American Academy of Facial Aesthetics, agrees theres a thriving underground network of shady Botox providers around the country, but he fears the problem is even worse than experts claim it is. I think a lot of this spa theft is people who are self-injecting, he says. There are nurses and doctors on YouTube who routinely inject themselves. So consumers get the idea that this is very easy: I could do this on myself. All I have to do is watch the videos.
Although they may feature disclaimers that they arent to be used as tutorials, YouTube videos recorded by medical professionals seeking to expand their brands and generate likes show just how simple these non-surgical procedures are.
A 2018 study published in the journal Plastic Surgery, titled Saving Face: An Online Study of the Injecting Use of DIY Botox and Dermal Filler Kits, concluded that untrained DIY injectors were undeterred by health risks, motivated in part by affordability, and that online forums and instruction videos had boosted their confidence.
Dana Berkowitz, the author of Botox Nation: Changing the Face of America, makes no distinction between the opioid junkie and the Botox bandit: Im not surprised by these crimes because Botox is really a sickness. Her tone is sober and measured, like shes issuing a surgeon general warning to the public. Once people start seeing the lines reappear, they panic. Having used Botox herself, Berkowitz knows the power of this drug. Patients have described Botox to me as an addiction, she says. Its also a gateway drug to other cosmetic procedures like dermal fillers.
Has she seen the Sugar Land surveillance video, the one Inside Edition tagged Soccer Mom Gone Wild?: Botox Bandit Strikes Again?
Yes, she answers earnestly, as if the attractive woman holding the grinding saw is her sister, and she wont say anything that will betray her trust.
I dont condone these crimes, but I do understand the motive, Berkowitz says. This woman is being told we have to do everything in our power to battle the onset of ageing, and most people cant afford to do it. This is part of a larger social problem.