For retailers nationwide, it’s a $30 billion a year problem. For Town of Ulster cops it’s a — literally — everyday call. For dozens of “loss prevention” workers at big-box stores on the Ulster Avenue commercial strip, it’s a living.
Shoplifters, from impulsive teenagers to well-organized traveling boosting crews, are drawn to the strip which includes the Hudson Valley Mall, Wal-Mart, Target, Lowe’s and other stores stuffed with the kind of valuable and easy-to-fence merchandise that attracts thieves of all stripes.
“When I was first on the job, it was more drug addicts stealing to support a habit and kids doing it for fun,” said Town of Ulster Police Chief Anthony Cruise. “Now, you see working people, elderly people, it’s really a wide spectrum.”
Cruise’s department handled 327 shoplifting complaints in 2013. Since 2010, the annual number of larceny complaints generated by the retail strip has averaged 371. To deal with the daily drumbeat of thievery, town cops rely on a close working relationship with loss-prevention staff employed by big-box retailers. Retailers’ corporate parents generally discourage loss-prevention staff from talking to the press, but Cruise and several experts in the field describe say virtually all big-box stores employ sophisticated video surveillance systems and workers trained to investigate and catch shoplifters even after they think they’ve made a clean getaway.
Most shoplifting busts occur at the store when loss prevention workers, tipped off by electronic anti-theft devices, video surveillance or direct observation catch the offender after they pass “all points of sale” (it is not a crime in New York State to conceal goods on one’s person inside a store). At that point, loss-prevention staff will attempt to detain the suspect. What happens from that point depends on store policy. Joseph LaRocca, head of Los Angeles-based loss-prevention consulting firm Retail Partners said retailers usually have a have a policy that sets a threshold for prosecution based on the value of the item taken, whether the suspect has valid ID and other factors.
If the store decides to pursue charges, police are called and an official complaint filed. Loss-prevention staff will typically provide police with video evidence of the theft and prepared statements describing the crime. From there, Cruise said, suspects are taken to police headquarters for booking, most commonly on a charge of misdemeanor petit larceny, and typically released with a ticket to appear in town court at a later date.
“The number-one goal in all of it is to help local law enforcement,” said Wal-Mart spokeswoman Diana Gee. “We want to do as much work on the front end as possible for them.”
Modern loss-prevention operations have access to high-quality video covering nearly every foot of store space. The camera systems can digitally store weeks’ or months’ worth of footage, allowing loss prevention personnel to identify shoplifters long after the crime. Earlier this year, loss-prevention staff at one Ulster Avenue retailer used video to identify a man who stole four vacuum cleaners and a television on separate occasions over a period of four months. In another store, a loss-prevention worker who spotted a man surreptitiously taking pictures up women’s skirts was able to use stored surveillance footage to find video evidence of the same man doing the same thing on multiple occasions.
Sometimes repeat offenders identified on video are caught when they return to the store. Others are recognized and tracked town by Town of Ulster police detectives after the footage is turned over to police. Cruise said video evidence from store security cameras had become an important tool for law enforcement. “It’s not as easy to get away with [shoplifting] as it was 25 years ago,” said Cruise. “Just because you walked out the door, you might think you got away with it, but you may not have.”
Cruise conceded that the omnipresence of store security cameras had raised concerns about unwarranted surveillance by police. But he said, officers did not engage in “fishing expeditions” using store surveillance cameras and in fact, only viewed the footage in cases where an official criminal complaint had been filed.
“The fact is, the minute you walk in that store, you’re on camera,” said Cruise. “But we’re not going to see it unless there’s a complaint.”
While day-to-day pilferers of everyday items make up the bulk of shoplifting arrests, retailers and police must also contend with professional thieves and criminal networks who routinely steal everything from televisions to heartburn remedies for resale on what experts calls “the secondary market.”
LaRocca, who previously served as senior advisor on loss prevention to the National Retail Federation, said that there is a robust market for goods stolen from big-box stores and an equally dedicated class of criminals to meet the demand.
The professionals may employ roving teams of three or four experienced thieves who use bags specially designed to thwart anti-theft devices. Armed with shopping lists provided by their employers the teams move from town to town, sometimes making off with thousands of dollars worth of merchandise in a single sweep. These crews specialize in hard-to-trace, easy-to-fence items including teeth-whitening strips, over-the-counter medications, laundry detergent and batteries. The items are then resold to mom-and-pop corner stores or discount liquidators. LaRocca said some professional shoplifting operations even repackage stolen items in bulk and pose as legitimate wholesalers to sell their wares to unsuspecting retail outlets.