Even in small town, retail thefts on rise

Dec. 15, 2008
Retailers and police say increase of thefts is linked with recession

Recently, Marden's Discount Store on Kennedy Memorial Drive in Waterville reported several incidents of shoplifting to police within just a few days.

Responding to an increase in such cases, the store hired a second loss-prevention employee for store security and beefed up its security system, said Amparo Hutchinson, an assistant store manager.

"We have noticed, with the economy being down, there's a lot more shoplifting," Hutchinson said. "Where the economy is, a lot of people just don't have money."

Shoes are the most common items that have been shoplifted at the store, Hutchinson said, and the culprits typically are teenagers.

Others confirm Hutchinson's observation: Crimes involving theft appear to be on the rise in central Maine. Law-enforcement officials and store owners agree with Hutchinson as to the likely cause: the economic recession.

Until just a few months ago, record-high gasoline and heating-fuel prices were also adding to the pinch.

On top of the economic plight is the holiday season, when more thefts typically occur anyway because of holiday shopping, police say. The combination of both factors has local statistics for thefts and other crimes on track to be higher than last year.

The Waterville Police Department reports that incidents of theft are up. In 2007, the department recorded 591 theft reports, of which 128 were shoplifting. As of Dec. 5 this year, the department had recorded 599 theft cases -- already an increase over 2007, with most of December remaining. Waterville shoplifting reports have totaled 156 as of Dec. 5 of this year.

"It seems like we've had a slight increase recently," said Waterville Deputy Chief Charles Rumsey. "It's hard to tell whether it's because of the economy or the holiday season; it's not unusual to see an increase this time of the year."

Still, an economic recession would seem to make instances of theft more likely, Rumsey said. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has reported that 533,000 jobs were lost in November, the 11th consecutive monthly decline and the highest monthly total in more than three decades.

"As economic times become tougher, that frequently means people lose their jobs or they're making less money at their jobs and some people will become desperate and resort to doing things to close a gap," Rumsey said.

The Kennebec County Sheriff's Office has noticed an increase recently in the theft of metals and other supplies. In October, the sheriff's office charged two Vassalboro men in connection with a pair of metal thefts from a Dam Road camp. An estimated $1,500 worth of metal was stolen.

Kennebec County Sheriff Randall A. Liberty attributes an increase in such crimes to a combination of drug addictions and hard economic times.

The Maine Merchants Association, based in Augusta, says the state's retail industry faces two types of theft: spur-of-the-moment shoplifting and organized, retail crime.

In the latter, stolen merchandise is resold, increasingly on Internet auction sites, to unsuspecting customers.

"The way the economy is makes for more desperate situations," said Executive Director Curtis Picard. Organized retail crime is a $30-billion-a-year problem and is a major concern for the association, Picard said. Baby formula and over-the-counter pharmaceuticals are among the most common items that are targeted, he said.

Crime rings increasingly operate in Maine because state law is more lenient than in neighboring New England states, Picard said. For a theft to be considered a felony crime, the amount stolen must exceed $1,000; in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, the thresholds are $250 and $500.

Picard is a member of a new retail crime task force created by the Legislature that is aiming to, among other things, propose lowering the state's felony threshold for theft.

For stores already reeling from fewer customers, an increase in retail theft only adds to the problem, Picard said.

"I would say it's making retailers of all sizes a little more vigilant and watching what's going on," Picard said. "Everything is so tight; everyone has concerns about the season, and you really got to watch every dollar.