Dear Santa Claus,

We know what some guys in Northeast Philadelphia deserve this Christmas:

A set of handcuffs and slammer time.

Three Salvation Army kettles were stolen in recent weeks at two Acmes on Roosevelt Boulevard in the Northeast, according to Randall Thomas, a spokesman for the charity. Each probably contained about $250.

A bicycle-riding thief in his late 20s or early 30s even snatched a red kettle - along with the tripod to which it was chained - while racing by the Acme near Solly Avenue, also the site of a second theft. The other store was at Harbison Avenue.

These were the first such thefts Thomas has seen in his nine years with the Army, although some have occasionally been reported in other parts of the country.

"It speaks, I think, to the times that we're facing right now," he said.

Unlike Robin Hood, though, these guys were, in effect, stealing from the poor, since the religious group uses its holiday donations to serve those in need year-round.

In the Philadelphia area alone, more than a hundred kettles raise about $700,000 each year.

"We're very disappointed," Thomas said. "We understand that they may be in desperate times. We would encourage them to come to a Salvation Army center center and ask for assistance rather than the method that they're choosing."

One worry is that a thief could compound his crime by using the kettle to collect cash for himself.

Would-be donors should know that at a genuine collection site, located outside a legimate store, the kettle will have a tripod and a sign, and the bellringer will have ID to show.

"They will not go door to door with that red kettle," Thomas said. "They will also not be at street corners going up to cars."

Anyone concerned about kettle donation could contribute by going to the local chapter's website, www.salvationarmyphiladelphia.org, which also has instructions for individuals and groups to host a virtual kettle online, Thomas said. Also, texting SHARE to 80888 will produce a $10 donation that shows up on a cell phone bill.

He also hopes thieves have a change of heart.

"We would encourage them to give the money back and return the pots. If they're out there and see some of these stories, we would like them to return the money."

Contact staff writer Peter Mucha at 215-854-4342 or pmucha@phillynews.com.