BROOKSVILLE - More holiday shoppers, more holiday shoplifters. The correlation is virtually undeniable for local law enforcement officials, retailers and security experts.
Anticipating the annual increase in desperate yuletide looters and hoping to keep shoppers safe as the crowds increase, the Hernando County Sheriff's Office has boosted patrols at big-box stores, plazas and other bustling shopping areas. The effort started on Black Friday - the day after Thanksgiving, also the traditional kickoff to the holiday shopping season - and will last through the start of 2009.
"It's a rather large undertaking," said Sgt. Donna Black, spokeswoman for the Sheriff's Office. "We have enhanced patrols at almost all of the shopping areas."
The elevated attention on shoplifters comes as retailers prepare for the final shopping push before Christmas - and as a top retail advocacy group released statistics showing a nationwide rise in the crime.
According to the National Retail Federation, 74 percent of 116 loss-prevention executives surveyed in June said shoplifting was up at their stores over the previous years. Another 79 percent said employee theft was up from the year before.
The numbers also appear to be on the rise in Hernando: 33 people were booked into the county jail on charges of retail theft and petty theft in the three weeks since Black Friday. That's an increase of nearly 74 percent - or 19 arrests - from a similar time period in 2007.
Some security experts have pinned the increase on the nation's sagging economy.
While the boost in shoplifting is not directly attributed to the struggling economy, it does serve as a sort of "trigger effect," said Joseph LaRocca, vice president of loss prevention with the National Retail Federation.
"The economy does have some effect," LaRocca said. "People are losing their jobs, the bill collectors are calling, they're trying to balance other things, and sometimes people will make a bad decision and steal merchandise from a store."
Richard Hollinger, a professor of criminology at the University of Florida, said the financial pressures have made shoplifters of people who would have never considered it before.
"People are living on the edge," Hollinger said. "There's just a lot of people who are unemployed, trying to make Christmas and trying to make their families happy."
Many retailers have taken notice, and are coming up with ways to anticipate the problem. The solutions include increased security, more training for current staffers and cooperating with local law enforcement agencies.
"Certainly with the beefed-up traffic, we tend to beef up our staff," said Daniel Doyle, vice president of human resources and loss prevention for Bradenton-based Beall's. "We know we're going to have more people. Hence, more people, more problems."
But Hollinger warned against trying to come up with a profile of a shoplifter. His research has shown they are generally a subset of the regular shoppers at any store, with the exception of large, highly organized shoplifting gangs that come from South America.
"Trying to generate a profile for a shoplifter is about the same as doing it for murderers," Hollinger said. "Profiles just don't work very well. You really have to train people to look for certain kinds of behavior."
According to Hollinger, the telltale signs of a shoplifter include customers who are aimlessly wandering around the store, looking around suspiciously and rarely focusing on the merchandise.
Good customer service is usually the best way to deter shoppers from taking off with merchandise, Hollinger said. Asking, "May I help you?" could be enough to thwart a shoplifting attempt.
"The subliminal message should be, 'We see you, we know you're here,'?" Hollinger said. "Even if they haven't picked anything up yet, you should just go up there and swarm them with good customer service. Most times, they'll just leave the store."
In the end, retailers say they are trying to find the balance between ensuring that thieves don't make off with valuable merchandise and making sure customers feel safe in their stores.
"We understand that unfortunately, criminal activity occurs in every community," said Ashley Hardie, a spokeswoman for Wal-Mart. "But in all of our stores, the safety and comfort of the shopper is of utmost importance."
Researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report.