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Paying the Price for Shoplifting

The holidays bring about a frenzy of shopping. But while you’re choosing a scarf for Grandma, at least one other person in the store is probably tucking one away in a backpack or purse. ...They’re shoplifting. And you're paying for it. Most of us would be horrified to learn the true extent of the problem.

If you’ve ever stumbled across a show called “Caught Red Handed” on TruTV, you know what we’re talking about.

On the show, a guy walks into a clothing store with a large, empty backpack, waits till no clerks are nearby, then stuffs it full of expensive jeans and walks out. He does this half a dozen times – in one day -- before he’s caught.

This is a more common scenario than you might think. The National Association for Shoplifting Prevention (NASP) has done studies showing that more than $13 billion (yes, billion) worth of goods are shoplifted each year from America’s retailers. That’s $35 million a day. And those estimates are probably low, say local retailers. 

In Colorado alone, more than half a billion in goods is stolen each year, robbing the state of $418 million in sales taxes. Taxes that would support schools, infrastructure and social programs. That’s according to a coalition of area retailers who make up the South Chapter of the Colorado Organized Retail Crimes Alliance (CORCA).

The coalition’s members include such stores as JCPenney, Macy’s, King Soopers, Albertson’s, Safeway, Kmart, Target, Lowe’s, Sears and Sam’s Club, among others.

Detective Eric Frederic of the Colorado Springs Police Department heads up the group. Two years ago, he was put in charge of organized retail crimes investigations – that segment representing the lion’s share of store losses.

We’re not talking about the homeless guy who steals a sandwich from Safeway, or a teen-age girl who pockets a packet of scrunchies from WalMart.

We’re talking two or more people who go into a store with the intent of stealing.

“Just recently, a group of three went into a Walgreen’s and in five minutes had pocketed $5,000 worth of over-the-counter drugs,” he says.

Such thieves “do this for a living. It’s their job. They get up every morning and figure where they’re going to go to get the things they want to steal,” Frederic says. Some are caught with shopping lists.

But it’s not just stores who pay for the losses. Consumers pick up the tab in retail prices, set to reflect the percentage of goods expected to be stolen. 

Contrary to popular belief, most shoplifters are not kids. Only about 25 percent are teens or younger. A full 75 percent are adults, some of them professionals. They’re evenly split between men and women, says the NASP survey. 

All stores are at risk. Drug stores, supermarkets, department stores, gift boutiques, electronics stores, convenience stores and even thrift shops. Stores in malls -- close together and each with its own security system -- are particularly vulnerable, Frederic says. 

Some shoplifters conceal their crime by buying something – pay for a $5 lipstick but tuck a $50 bottle of perfume into a pocket. 

When Frederic compiled a mid-year report in May, over eleven hundred shoplifters had been arrested so far this year. He guesses that’s about one-third of the real number doing the deed.

Not every incident requires a visit from police. Store policies vary as to the action taken for the amount stolen. Many stores fill out a “no trespass” order for that person for any given time period the store sets. A photo of the shoplifter is taken to accompany the report.

One of Frederic’s main duties is to look at these reports to see who the serial shoplifters are and to develop an aggregate case against them. 

Because many shoplifters know if they stay under $2,000, they won’t be charged with a felony, they actually keep tabs on how much they are stealing in each trip.

“But now we can assemble a case against them using all the incidents,” Frederic says. “We have one situation with 17 cases against a set of individuals who stole a total of $25,000 in goods.” 

Stores are getting smarter and more aggressive about preventing losses. More and better video cameras are being installed. Expensive items have security tags. And at least one store has hired off-duty policemen full time to monitor the problem.

“One local WalMart lost $3 million in one year,” Frederic says. “It’s worth it to them to hire a few off-duty officers.”

If Frederic has one message for would-be shoplifters, it’s this: “We’re watching. We’re taking it seriously now. And we’re prosecuting.”

If you see someone shoplifting, he says, report it to store security or try to get a car description and license number. The CSPD has set up a tip line for citizen reporting. It’s 719-444-7297 and the email is ptipline@springsgov.com.

“But be careful,” he warns. “Some of these folks are armed.”