Combating Organized Retail Theft in 2005

We've celebrated the new year, and retail security professionals are putting their plans for 2005 into practice. The goals are the same-to reduce shrink and thereby increase profitability-but the specifics change each year to meet new challenges.

The Focus for the New Year
In 2005, retail security will have to focus more heavily on organized retail theft. A number of reports reflect that security in the United States has worsened in many arenas since September 11, 2001. Part of the problem is that many crime-fighting resources are being focused exclusively on terrorist activities. Also, once the perception of an immediate threat evaporates, people want to return to business as usual, which often means ignoring the risks or simply paying lip service to the implementation of security measures. However, the picture is coming in as clearly as a theft captured on a high-tech CCTV camera: Doing nothing to combat organized retail theft not only hurts a retail business' bottom line; it also encourages further terrorist activities.

Financing Terrorism Through Organized Retail Theft
According to CIS Robert W. Nolen, a lead trainer in a course developed with Bureau of Justice Assistance grant money called "Understanding, Combating, and Surviving Terrorism," many criminals from terrorist countries specialize in the re-sale of stolen consumer goods. The profits from these enterprises are used to fund terrorist activities.

Shoplifting and burglary crews target retail goods that are easy to resell quickly, like baby formula, OTC medications and apparel. The crew members are often professional shoplifters or burglars who earn their living through this kind of work. Many of them are recruited by and work for established rings of Middle Eastern fences who funnel the ill-gotten profits into terrorist organizations.

In many cases, men and women from El Salvador, Honduras and Mexico travel together, doing the actual stealing. Each person in the crew has a particular area of expertise, whether it be distracting store employees, doing the actual boosting, or driving the get-away vehicle. These professional thieves often earn $3,000 a week.

A Serious Problem
Reports of such rings in the United States are being released in dribs and drabs, but a look at published accounts elsewhere reflects the seriousness of the problem. Last year, for example, Winnipeg Police busted a major Canadian theft ring by targeting the activities of a local group of known criminals who were involved in burglaries as well as the thefts of high-end merchandise.

The investigation revealed that this group would routinely off-load their stolen goods to a specific group of high-level fences on the day of the thefts. Some of the fences were waiting for merchandise requested through orders placed on behalf of buyers worldwide. Other fences would simply re-sell the goods to known acquaintances.

In addition to the theft/re-sale schemes, Middle Eastern fences have been found to be involved in both the planning and execution of large-scale burglaries of consumer goods. The burglaries take months to plan and involve such sophisticated techniques as rooftop entry, cut phone lines, and lookouts with cell phones and walkie-talkies on foot and in cars.

Retail establishments are often scouted by persons who enter the shop during daylight hours, usually at a busy time. The scout then informs confederates of the location of high-end goods. They then return at night to burglarize the store or send in gangs of shoplifters to conduct a sweep of the expensive merchandise.

The Solution
Loss prevention professionals are not without a defense against organized retail theft. The first step toward successfully combating the problem is recognizing that it exists and acknowledging its gravity. After that, standard security practices can be employed: the use of guards, CCTV, alarms and so forth. But in order to make a real difference in shrink rates, this kind of theft must be fought by more than just the security staff. Floor employees and law enforcement must also buy into the solution.

Educational programs are a good way to start. Informed store management and employees can become an effective first line of defense against shoplifting rings. In several cases, educated salespeople have smothered would-be shoplifters with so much attention that the gang left without stealing a thing. When floor employees know what to look for, they can be an important anti-theft tool.

By educating local law enforcement about the nature and extent of the problem, you can make requests for service at your store a higher priority. Once police are aware that allowing a shoplifter to escape can mean contributing to terrorist activities, they will be more eager to help. Exchange information with them so the security staff has a proper understanding of what they need in order to successfully prosecute organized theft rings. In other words, train them and let them train you.

Liz Mart'nez is an instructor at Interboro Institute in New York City, which offers a Security Management degree program. the author of The Retail Manager's Guide to Crime and Loss Prevention (2004, Looseleaf Law Publications). She can be reached through her Web site at