US & Canada

Human hair thefts strike US salons

Hair extensions
Image caption Hair has no serial number - so stolen extensions cannot be traced

A spate of hair extension thefts across the US has put the spotlight on the lucrative market for human hair.

It may sound an unlikely source of income - but salons across the country are on alert after a series of raids in which hair worth tens of thousands of dollars has been stolen.

In the latest theft, thieves rammed a car through the front door of a beauty supply shop in Atlanta, Georgia, and escaped with an estimated $10,000 (£6,119) in hair extensions.

In Houston, one raid at My Trendy Place hair salon earned the perpetrators $120,000 (£73,432) of Indian "virgin hair" - unprocessed and untreated.

Owner Lisa Amosu said the burglar, filmed on closed circuit television, knew exactly what he wanted and didn't even bother to raid the cash till, heading straight for the storeroom housing hundreds of extension bundles and wigs.

"They cleared me out," she says. "It's so unfortunate, because the hairpieces were made especially for cancer survivors and for ladies who could not usually afford them.

"Hair extensions are a huge part of my business. I have customers who come from Dallas, San Antonio, Fort Worth and Louisiana, because they get high quality."

In one raid, in March, the owner of a shop in Michigan was shot dead as he tried to prevent $10,000 of extensions from being taken.

Other thefts over the last few months, include a separate $85,000 raid in Texas, and two raids in California, worth $60,000 and $10,000 respectively.

Surveillance cameras have shown burglars breaking through walls and windows, slithering along floors to avoid alarms and then grabbing expensive hair extensions from the shelves and stockrooms.

Sgt Frank Quinn of Houston Police said the burglars are selling the stolen hair on eBay, Craigslist or more informally from the boot of their cars.

He said some of them just wander into neighbourhoods and apartment complexes and try to sell them to people they come across.

'Addicted'

Singers like Beyonce, Gwen Stefani and Christina Aguilera have popularised a look that has been fashionable in the African American community for decades.

Ceron, who owns a luxury hair salon in Houston, says women are so keen for the length and volume extensions give them that his extension appointments have risen from five or six a week not long ago to 15-20 now.

"It's quite expensive to get quality hair so it's in demand, but it's becoming like a drug. People have to have them.

"Many of my clients remove their hair [for regular maintenance] and want it back on the same day, they're so addicted.

"At a regular salon, you pay $4-500 for a bundle and people usually buy three or four bundles, for different styles and different colours."

A regular head can wear three or four bundles, he says. Each bundle takes an hour and a half to weave in and requires changing every two to three months, to re-touch the colours.

Image caption Chris Rock and Nia Long starred in Good Hair

Salons in the Western world buy the hair from companies that import it from countries like India.

A BBC investigation in 2008 discovered that some Indian women were having their head shaved voluntarily in a religious ritual.

Neal Lester of Arizona State University, who has been studying the race and gender politics of hair for 20 years, says the wearing of extensions is a long established tradition in the African American community.

One of the first examples he saw was on Janet Jackson in the film Poetic Justice in 1993.

"There has always been a demand for it. But now some 'entrepreneurs' out there are recognising it's a way to make an easy buck pretty quickly, without much of a possibility of being caught, once you get out.

"Hair doesn't have stamps that identify where it comes from, it's not like money that can be traced."

Self-image

A film documentary presented by comic actor Chris Rock in 2009, Good Hair, may also explain the timing of the racket, he says, because it woke a lot of people up to the huge prices women were paying.

"You can get some extensions from Wallgreen's or a drugstore but the quality of that hair doesn't have the same premium that is human hair," Neal Lester says.

The lengths that burglars - and consumers - will go to satisfy this demand for hair that is straight and long says much about society's preoccupation with image, he adds, and it's not something that can be dismissed easily.

"It's about how we feel about ourselves and how we absorb these images of what it means to be beautiful."