Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The shoplifter

There was just something wrong about the woman. It was the expression on her face when she looked up at me.

It was in my local Walmart this past Sunday. She was crouched, looking at the bottom row of a display of beard and hair trimmers. I wanted to look at the trimmers but she was in my way. Aware that I was there she glanced back at me, but apparently me being there didn't stop her. She took a trimmer from the shelf and put it in a large carpet-bag she was holding. I stepped back into the traffic aisle in time to encounter a male Walmart employee. I stopped him and said, “There's a woman shoplifting.” He said, “Okay,” and moved on. I had noticed as he approached me he had glanced at the woman just before I stopped him.

The woman was joined by a man, and the two of them moved on. The employee came back and found me. “Those people have been in the store quite a while. We've been watching them.” He didn't have to say any more. Walmart has people who do nothing but watch for retail theft. When you enter any big store you are under observation. Sometimes, as in Walgreens, they have monitors visible, as in the pharmacy area, to let you know you're being watched. Security is sophisticated nowadays, and it's a good idea to to have it in mind. If you act suspicious you will draw someone's attention. My son, who was in town with his children, had also noticed the woman. He said, “It's amazing what people try to get away with.” I know. At the same Walmart a couple of years ago I saw two employees detaining a woman who had stuck a $2.00 set of colored marking pens in her purse. They had her sitting on a bench. One employee, holding the pens, asked her, “Why did you do this?”

“I don’t know,” said the woman in a voice that squeaked from anxiety. For a couple of bucks worth of marking pens she was going to become persona non grata at Walmart. In my town that's a fate worse than death. 

I think shoplifting, especially in large chain stores with security always watching, is a high risk endeavor. But according to some articles I've read it can also be profitable. Organized gangs of shoplifters go through stores. They can steal thousands of dollars worth of merchandise in a few minutes and be gone.

According to a 2006 article by Joel Groover in Shopping Center Today, organized shoplifting rings account for millions of dollars in thefts:
. . .the FBI’s 2004 Uniform Crime Report, an analysis of statistics culled from 17,000 law enforcement agencies, points to a marked rise in shoplifting. “Most of the crimes within the larceny/theft statistic have decreased since the year 2000,” said Eric Ives, head of the FBI’s Major Theft Unit, Criminal Investigative Division. ‘Shoplifting has increased 11.7 percent.’
     Organized retail crime is so pervasive and insidious it amounts to an all-out assault on the retail industry, writes Read Hayes, co-director of The University of Florida’s Loss Prevention Research Team, in a 59-page study titled Organized Retail Crime: Describing a Major Problem. In addition to running aggressive shoplifting rings and sophisticated credit card and check scams, for example, the crooks hit factories, cargo trucks and distribution centers. Customer-friendly return policies often enable them to take that loot back into stores and swap it for cash — plus sales tax — without providing personal identification or presenting a receipt. ‘Stolen or tainted goods are even repackaged and sold, along with first-quality goods, back to retailers by dishonest wholesalers,’ Hayes wrote in his report.
     The phenomenon of organized shoplifting — often called boosting — has plagued malls in one form or another for decades. Over the past several years, however, the crooks have modernized. ‘There has been a change in the [level of] organization,’ said David Levenberg, vice president of security and loss prevention at General Growth Properties and the chairman of ICSC’s Subcommittee on Security. ‘They have become more formalized and more technologically astute.’
But unlike Walmart, which has a zero tolerance policy for shoplifting, other retailers may make it easy for shoplifters to operate, because some refuse to prosecute, fearing false arrest lawsuits. Some don’t feel the penalties justify calling law enforcement. Again from Groover’s article:
When it comes to effectively prosecuting organized retail theft, the barriers are high. Shoplifting, after all, is a misdemeanor unless prosecutors can prove the thieves stole enough merchandise to cross felony thresholds or transported large caches of loot across state lines. Martinez cites the case of a Berlin, N.J., couple who scammed T.J. Maxx stores up and down the East Coast out of as much as $600,000. The two would steal or buy merchandise, make fake receipts with high prices on them and then use the receipts to return the items for cash, says Sgt. Louis Torres, a detective with the Holmdel (N.J.) Township Police Department. Neither the state nor federal government would take the case, but local police were swayed by T.J. Maxx’s notebook full of evidence. The sentence? Probation.
Of course we all pay for shoplifting, so if law enforcement doesn’t take it seriously, then stores and consumers will continue to take hits to the wallet. A few years ago I would have turned away from a person I might have seen shoplifting (didn’t want to get involved), but now I feel differently about such crimes.


DEMiller said...

I agree with you on all accounts, except the part about shopping at Wal-Mart. My wife and I have never been to one and will never go to one.

Postino said...

Lord help me, Dave...I've tried and tried to stay away...but I just can't. I'm so ashamed of myself!