Um, any boosters reading this, if you got Gap Gift Cards or Saks Credit, please holla!
via NY Times
Richard R. Johnson is the first to admit it was a bad idea.
Recently laid off from a job building trailers in Elkhart, Ind., Mr. Johnson came up a dollar short at Martin’s Supermarket last month when he went to buy a $4.99 bottle of sleep medication. So, “for some stupid reason,” he tried to shoplift it and was immediately arrested.
“I was desperate, I guess,” said Mr. Johnson, 25, who said he had never been arrested before. As the economy has weakened, shoplifting has increased, and retail security experts say the problem has grown worse this holiday season. Shoplifters are taking everything from compact discs and baby formula to gift cards and designer clothing.
Police departments across the country say that shoplifting arrests are 10 percent to 20 percent higher this year than last. The problem is probably even greater than arrest records indicate since shoplifters are often banned from stores rather than arrested.
Much of the increase has come from first-time offenders like Mr. Johnson making rash decisions in a pinch, the authorities say. But the ease with which stolen goods can be sold on the Internet has meant a bigger role for organized crime rings, which also engage in receipt fraud, fake price tagging and gift card schemes, the police and security experts say.
And as temptation has grown for potential thieves, so too has stores’ vulnerability.
“More people are desperate economically, retailers are operating with leaner staffs and police forces are cutting back or being told to deprioritize shoplifting calls,” said Paul Jones, the vice president of asset protection for the Retail Industry Leaders Association.
The problem, he said, could be particularly acute this December, “the month of the year when shoplifting always goes way up.”
Two of the largest retail associations say that more than 80 percent of their members are reporting sharp increases in shoplifting, according to surveys conducted in the last two months.
Compounding the problem, stores are more reluctant to stop suspicious customers because they fear scaring away much-needed business. And retailers are increasingly trying to save money by hiring seasonal workers who, security experts say, are themselves more likely to commit fraud or theft and are less practiced at catching shoplifters than full-time employees are.
More than $35 million in merchandise is stolen each day nationwide, and about one in 11 people in America have shoplifted, according to the nonprofit National Association for Shoplifting Prevention.
“We used to see more repeat offenders doing it because of drug addiction,” said Samyah Jubran, an assistant district attorney in Knoxville who for 13 years has handled the bulk of the shoplifting cases there. “But many of these new offenders may be doing it because of the economic situation. Maybe they’re hurting at home, and they’re taking a risk they may not take otherwise.”
Much of the stolen merchandise is sold online.
Dave Finley, the president of Leadsonline.com, which offers software that helps store owners track stolen goods being sold online and at pawn shops, said his company had seen a 50 percent increase over the last year in the number of shoplifting investigations handled by the company.
Security experts say retail theft is also being facilitated by Web sites that sell fake receipts that thieves can use to obtain cash refunds for stolen merchandise.
Andreas Carthy, the creator of one such site, denied that he was assisting with fraud.
“We provide a no-questions-asked service,” he said in an e-mail message, adding that his site was intended for people looking for prank gifts or students seeking to inflate spending to get more generous allowances from their parents.
At about $40 each, the Web site — which insists they are “for novelty use only” — sells about 80 fake receipts a month, Mr. Carthy said.
Local law enforcement and retailers have been trying new tactics to battle shoplifting and other forms of retail crime.
In Savannah, Ga., a local convenience store chain has linked its video surveillance to a police station so officers can help monitor the store for shoplifting and other crimes. In Louisiana, the police have been requiring shoplifters, even first-time offenders, to post $1,000 bail or stay in jail until their court date. On Staten Island, malls have started posting the mug shots of repeat shoplifters on video screens.
“There are more of them, and they seem more desperate,” said a store manager about shoplifters at the nation’s largest shopping center, the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., which has seen a 19 percent increase in shoplifting this year over last.
The manager, who asked not to be identified because she was not permitted to speak to reporters, said stealing gift cards was especially popular during the holidays.
Shoplifters also seem to be getting bolder, according to industry surveys.
Thieves often put stolen items in bags lined with aluminum foil to avoid detection by the storefront alarms. Others work in teams, with a decoy who tries to look suspicious to draw out undercover security agents and attract the attention of security cameras, the police said.
“We’re definitely seeing more sprinters,” said an undercover security guard at Macy’s near Oakland, Calif., referring to shoplifters who make a run for the door.
The guard said that most large department stores instructed guards not to chase shoplifters more than 100 feet outside the store, because research showed that confrontations tended to become more serious beyond that point.
The holidays are a particularly popular time for pilfering.
About 20 percent of annual retail sales occur in November and December, and even with precautions, the increased customer traffic makes it tougher to track thieves. Moreover, cashiers are rushed by long lines, making them less vigilant about checking for stolen credit cards.
Mr. Johnson, who was arrested last month, said that after being laid off from his $20-an-hour job at a trailer factory a year ago, he took a job for $6.55 an hour at McDonald’s. Six months later, he was laid off and has not been able to find a job since.
He and his two small children rely on his wife’s minimum-wage job at Wal-Mart, groceries from a food bank and help from his mother, he said.
“I just know things are going to get a lot rougher,” said Mr. Johnson, who is awaiting trial. He added that no matter how tough it became, he had no intention of shoplifting again.
Mr. Johnson said he was shocked that the store had decided to prosecute him for stealing such a small amount. A manager at Martin’s Supermarket said the store had a policy of prosecuting all shoplifting.
Retail security experts, however, say that people like Mr. Johnson do not pose the biggest threat to stores. People like Tommy Joe Tidwell do.
Mr. Tidwell, 35, pleaded guilty last month to running a shoplifting ring out of Dayton, Ohio, that netted more than $1 million, according to court papers.
After Mr. Tidwell would print fraudulent UPC bar code labels on his home computer, he and several conspirators would place them on items at Wal-Mart and other stores, then buy the merchandise for a fraction of the real price. They would resell the goods on the Internet, according to court papers.
Joe LaRocca, vice president of loss prevention for the National Retail Federation, said that as the holidays approached, retail security workers were keeping a close eye on receipt fraud.
But to entice shoppers, three times as many stores as last year have loosened their return policies, extending the return period and being more lenient with shoppers who lack receipts, according to the federation.
“Retailers are trying to find a balance,” Mr. LaRocca said. “They want to provide good customer service at a time when it’s crucial for customers to be able to shop comfortably or to return unwanted or duplicate gifts.
“But they also want to prevent criminals from taking advantage of them.”