To Fight Crime Rings, Stores Shrug off Secrecy, Share Information

Organized retail theft increasing in prevalence; but retailers fighting back in earnest


Retailers say the professional boosters are bold.

Venus Finley-Akins, senior regional loss prevention manager for Gap Inc., based in San Francisco, said one of her most notable cases happened in an earlier job at Mervyns, a discount department store chain also based in San Francisco.

Looting store at night

Thieves had discovered that they could get into a store at night through an air conditioning duct on the roof by removing the vent. One man would crawl through and drop into the store, dragging a rope. He would fill bags with merchandise and send them up to an accomplice on the roof, then leave the same way.

The store had been losing so much merchandise that the loss prevention team did a stakeout to catch the crooks, Finley-Akins recalled.

"We had 30 bags of merchandise on the roof when we caught them," she said. The crime ring was fencing the stolen merchandise to South America and Asia, Finley-Akins said.

During the day, the pros work in teams while stores are open, loss prevention managers say. A few of them will gather merchandise into "booster boxes" or "booster bags" that they carry, while a lookout watches for store security officers. Lookouts use cell phones these days, allowing them to hang out without drawing suspicion.

"Nobody bothers someone who's talking on a cell phone," Berger, of Stage Stores, explained.

Taking action

Retailers are just starting to take action to stop the crime rings.

Preliminary results released this month of the 2005 National Retail Security Survey from the University of Florida show that only 10% of the retailers who responded have an organized retail crime task force. One-third of companies are tracking organized retail crime data.

Last year, the National Retail Federation started polling its members on organized crime. In its latest poll, conducted in April, the federation found that 81% of companies had been victimized by organized crime, but only 52% were allocating additional resources to stopping it.

Catching the boosters in a store is one thing, but getting prosecutors to pursue a case can be even more challenging, retailers say.

Frazier, the FBI agent from Portland, said the Sept. 11 attacks only made it more difficult.

"We've had to decrease resources for bank robberies, drugs and property crimes," Frazier said, because the money is being diverted to fight terrorism.

A big job to do

That means retailers have to take responsibility for doing much of the detective work themselves, and for educating local law enforcement officers on the scope of the crime rings.

The retail federation is supporting the establishment of a national network that will allow retailers and law enforcement agencies to share information that will help them to stop the crime rings.

Congress recently authorized the FBI to set up a task force to fight organized retail theft and to set up a national database to track and identify where organized retail theft crimes are being committed. The database will allow federal, state and local law enforcement officials and retailers to submit information and to review what others have put into the system. Through 2009, Congress has authorized spending $5 million for training officers and investigating and prosecuting organized retail theft crimes.

In addition to the database system, Richard Hollinger, the University of Florida professor who compiles the annual retail loss survey for the retail federation, urged retailers to screen prospective employees carefully. Hollinger said 27% of retailers who responded to the 2005 survey planned to do more checks for criminal convictions.