Tampa PD
All-American beauty (and "Botox bandit") Jaime Merk in her Tampa police mug shot.
msnbc.com contributor
updated 8/3/2010 2:48:43 PM ET 2010-08-03T18:48:43

You might call it a new wrinkle on the old dine-and-dash. 

Last month, a woman waltzed into a cosmetic dermatology center in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., spent two-and-a-half hours getting $3,300 worth of Botox and dermal fillers, then told staff she needed to duck out to a nearby ATM.

It was the last they saw of her.

Dubbed the "Beauty Bandit" by local practitioners (she’s hit more than one clinic in the area), the suspect — identified as Maria Chrysson by police — was just arrested and charged with grand theft, the latest in a line of cosmetic criminals who undergo Botox injections, dermal fillers, and other beauty treatments and then dash off without paying.

We’ve got a runner!
“We’ve had it happen three times,” says Dr. Samir Pancholi, a cosmetic and facial plastic surgeon from Las Vegas. “The first time, it was a woman in her 50s who came in and got treatment, then said, ‘My purse is in the car, I’ll go grab it and be right back.’ Then she was gone.”

While Pancholi never filed theft reports (“This is low on the police’s radar,” he says), other Botox bandits have been reported in Newport Beach, Calif.; Port St. Lucie, Fla.; Tampa, Fla.; Brisbane, Australia and Kenton, England.

“From talking to our doctors, this is a problem that’s occurring from coast to coast,” says Jeff Karzen, spokesman for the American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery.

“I’ve had it occur,” says Dallas plastic surgeon Dr. Rod Rohrich, a spokesperson for the American Society of Plastic Surgeons who says many of his colleagues have also been hit. “It’s mostly in patients I’ve never seen before. The best way [to prevent it] is to have all new patients pre-pay. In this way, we prevent the 'runners,' as we call them in Texas.”

In-your-face fraud
According to news reports, cosmetic criminals typically use a fake name, address and phone number on the intake forms, then spend hours getting a consultation and treatment, sometimes discussing future procedures.

When it’s time to settle the bill, though, things get tricky. 

Sometimes, they’ll pen a bad check. Other times, they’ll ask to use the bathroom or suddenly realize they’ve “forgotten” their purse or credit card in the car.

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A British woman arrested for absconding with nearly 1,000 pounds (about $1,300 dollars) worth of Botox told the receptionist she needed to go outside to check on her 8-year-old child, leaving her cell phone behind (police used it to track her down).

The recent Fort Lauderdale beauty gave staff members her purse as collateral, then fled. Inside, they found a receipt for cosmetic work done by a Miami cosmetic surgeon who had been similarly bilked six months ago.

“You have to be pretty self-assured,” says Dr. Jon Grazer, the Newport Beach plastic surgeon who was hit by a Botox bandit last year. “It’s not like you’re dropping something into your purse at a department store. You’re face-to-face with someone while you’re defrauding them.”

Grazer’s thief got more than $1,000 worth of dermal fillers and Botox, then asked to use the bathroom and “bolted out of the office.” A month later, she hit another Newport Beach clinic making off with $850 worth of beauty booty.  

While the California woman is still at large, other Botox bandits have been picked up and brought to justice.

Here in the U.S., Tampa beauty and Botox burglar Jaime Merk was charged with grand theft and jailed in September 2009 and the Port St. Lucie culprit, 23-year-old Kellie Thomas, was arrested and charged with grand theft, receiving 18 months probation. She was also directed to pay restitution and court costs.

In England, Camilla Callaghan was sentenced to 6 months “community order” (the British version of community service) while Brisbane Botox heister Julie Ann Villiers was ordered to pay $2,300.

Tightening the rules
Plastic surgeons point to the bad economy and the perceived “necessity” of cosmetic procedures as impetus for the new “prick-and-runs.”

“Botox is no longer a luxury,” says Grazer. “It’s something people have to have, and if they can’t afford it because of the economy, I think it’s going to push them to get it by whatever means they can.”

Botox banditry may soon be coming to an end, though, as doctors nip and tuck their patient policies.

Grazer says he now requires new patients to provide a copy of their driver’s license. Pancholi, too, has firmed and tightened his rules.

“It took three different instances to have us change the policy,” he says. “But now we collect everything up front. For us, it’s pay now and you can have everything you want under the sun.”

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Video: 'Beauty Bandit' arraigned


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