Open House, License to Steal? Not So Fast

At an open house real estate agents can show off their latest properties and entice prospective buyers with the warmth and luxury of a "lived-in" home.

But this time-honored tradition has unexpectedly opened the door to more than just interested buyers. Thieves are also finding gold mines in these enviable homes.

In a case that grabbed headlines in 2007, police say two women posing as wealthy home buyers were caught stealing tens of thousands of dollars of merchandise from pricey Manhattan homes.

Watch the story on ABC's "What Would You Do?" tonight at 10 ET.

What would you do if, while touring a lavish home filled with expensive treasures and decor, you noticed someone slip something into a bag? ABC News decided to find out by staging an open house.

In an upper-middle-class community in suburban New Jersey, ABC News rigged a home for sale with a dozen hidden cameras, staged it with fine crystal, fur coats, jewelry and expensive gadgets and instructed two actresses to steal in plain view of other visitors touring the home.

The Missing Laptop

Potential home buyers Nina Goffman and Scott Drucks were visiting the open house when Goffman seemed to spot the two thieves steal a crystal bowl from the elaborate dining room table and then swipe prescription bottles from the kitchen counter. Though she appeared to tell Drucks what she'd seen, minutes went by and no one said a word until Margot, another actress cast as the homeowner, told them that her laptop was missing.

Although Drucks never witnessed the crime, he immediately suggested to Margot that the laptop had been taken by thieves and headed to the front door to confront them. The scene turned into a heated altercation as Drucks called 911 and tried to keep the thieves from leaving the house before the cops arrived. Emergency officials were aware of ABC News' experiment.

'Take It Out!'

Next, three friends visited the open house. Melody Huang, Kelly Lin and Gloria Ko were browsing the home when they witnessed the same theft.

Huang's attention quickly shifted from the ornate details of the house to the dubious behavior. When she saw the thieves slip numerous pieces of silver into their purses, she immediately tracked down the homeowner.

"Are they your friends?" she asked.

When Margot said no, Huang told her that the women had been stealing and to check their bags.

Margot purposefully hesitated and stalled, but that didn't stop Huang. Without an ounce of hesitation, she marched over to the thieves and politely asked whether they had put something in their bags.

The two actors denied the accusations and Huang seemed to back down, perhaps doubting what she'd seen, but only momentarily. Meanwhile, in another room in the house, Huang's friend Lin had dialed 911 and was on the phone with the police.

A few minutes later Huang saw the actress steal again; this time she was unstoppable.

"Miss, what are you doing? Miss, what are you doing? Take it out. ... Take it out!" she repeated over and over as she took on the two aggressive thieves who were both much bigger than she.

"You put something in your bag there. I just saw it again!"

As the thieves tried to make a quick exit, Huang, now backed up by her two friends, physically blocked the front door.

Colgate psychology professor Carrie Keating, who had been watching the scene unfold from ABC News' control room, says the women's friendship is probably key to their act of bravery in the name of justice.

"One thing we know about intervention is that when people form a team, and we do so very quickly with those we know -- with friends -- when one friend reacts, others generally follow suit."

ABC News wondered whether it would see that same teamwork again and whether the race of the thieves would affect the response. To find out, in the next scenario the white actresses were replaced with two black women.

Teamwork and Community, With a Twist

This time, two couples walked in the front door who were complete strangers.

As the black women begin a new stealing spree, this time swiping a fur coat, the women seemed to notice right away. But like the first visitors to the open house, Stacy Lipstein and Jie Yuan were at first reluctant to say anything, until homeowner Margot approached them with a question.

"Did any of you notice, I thought there was a mink coat in that box over there?" Margot said. "I thought it was there, but I don't see it."

Lipstein immediately marched up to the thieves with Margot and the other visitors in tow. She seemed to have no doubt that the actors had stolen the fur coat and confronted them directly.

As the women vehemently denied the allegations, the couples formed a posse of resistance with Lipstein in the lead and Yuan as her second in command. While Lipstein called the police, the others blocked the front door as the thieves tried to flee the house.

"There's an open house and there's somebody in here stealing things," Lipstein told the 911 operator. "She stole everything. That girl just stole everything!"

The same spirit of teamwork and community that was witnessed when the white thieves were stealing had occurred again with the black actresses.

But there was one difference ABC News noticed. Huang had told the homeowner about the thievery right away, but neither Lipstein nor Yuan said a word about what they witnessed until Margot, the homeowner, spoke up first.

ABC News asked the women whether they thought their hesitation was due to the actresses' race.

"It had nothing to do with the race," said Lipstein.

"We are minority too, you know," said Yuan, who is from Beijing. "When it's wrong, it's wrong, it doesn't matter you're black, you're white, you're yellow, you know ... whatever color."

A Second Chance

In our last twist of the day, the black actresses were replaced with a black male. Would the gender of the thief change the response?

ABC News' hidden cameras rolled as friends and prospective home buyers Jason Woodlee and Patrick McKeown walked toward the front door. Until now women had noticed the stealing so ABC News was surprised when Woodlee caught on right away.

As soon as he observed the actor steal a diamond ring, it was as if Woodlee's radar had gone off. Woodlee almost seemed to stalk the thief as the actor then stole an iPod, prescription medication and a watch. Within seconds he notified Margot.

"The fella that's walking around. He's picked up four different items … and put them in his bag."

With Margot now aware, Woodlee walked over to the actor and confronted him.

"The iPod that was over here. I saw you put it in your bag."

The actor, Cezar, told Woodlee that he was mistaken and that the iPod belonged to him. But Woodlee didn't buy it. He continued to push Cezar to confess and when that didn't work, much to ABC News' surprise, he offered the thief a way out.

"Excuse me, sir. … There ain't gonna be no trouble if you just drop whatever you took and run. … Open your bag and drop your stuff."

When Woodlee learned that Cezar wasn't really a thief but an actor, he was asked why he'd given the thief an opportunity to relinquish the goods and walk away.

"I'd like to think that if I was down on my luck and being stupid enough to steal something someone would say hey, buddy, do you really want to do that?" Woodlee said.

Remarkably, during this experiment every visitor to the open house tried to stop the thieves, even though the visitors were in a stranger's home.