For retailers, a sad saga of security gaps

Jan. 15, 2008
Man made a living of defrauding retailers, avoiding security

Jan. 13--Anthony Fussell was a human-resource manager's dream come true. Or so it seemed. He was a well-spoken Morgan State University grad, a former Marine Corps reservist with a solid resume who convinced interviewers at ShopRite, Kmart, Value City, Toys R Us and Ross Dress for Less that he had the retail business down cold.

Police say Fussell also turned out to be an expert at slipping through retailing's often porous security systems.

Detectives in Pennsylvania and New Jersey allege that the 35-year-old Gloucester County man stole as much as $220,000 from eight companies by getting hired as a store manager, working for a few days or weeks, then disappearing with cash receipts.

If law enforcement is right, a guy who never attended Morgan State, received a less-than-honorable discharge from the Marines, and was wanted on a fugitive warrant repeatedly survived background checks to get jobs.

"He sounds like a Frank Abagnale," said Richard C. Hollinger, a professor of criminology at the University of Florida, referring to the infamous con artist and subject of the movie Catch Me If You Can.

Police say Fussell, who had just landed another job when arrested last month, was involved in eight thefts between December 2004 and November 2007, allegedly making off with $5,000 to more than $41,000. Charges have been brought in three of the cases and are pending in the other five, police say. Police also are investigating Fussell in three additional cases in New Jersey, New York and Georgia.

Attempts to reach Fussell for comment in the Camden County jail were unsuccessful. Camden County public defender Efrain Nieves, assigned to Fussell, would not comment on the case.

Fussell used his own name and Social Security number when applying for jobs, but for references provided telephone numbers to his own throwaway cell phones, police say. He used old addresses. He sought management jobs at retail companies with a high volume of cash transactions, and picked busy holiday seasons or expansion periods when stores were less likely to complete background checks before putting new employees on the floor, according to police.

And he was a great interview.

"One of the best interviews I ever had," said Jason Ravitz, vice president at ShopRite in Cherry Hill, where Fussell, an assistant manager who passed the store's assessment test, is accused of taking $23,000 from the safe on Aug. 31.

Police say Fussell typically wasted no time stealing the cash once he got the keys or combinations.

At a Dollar General store in Philadelphia, "he was only there for three or four days," said Philadelphia Detective Patrick Murray, who is investigating the loss of $8,700 on Nov. 12. Charges are pending Fussell's extradition from New Jersey, he said.

U.S. marshals picked up Fussell on Dec. 27 at a Hess gas station on Route 38 in Mount Holly, where he was training as an assistant manager.

"He was pretty shocked," said John Hunsinger, who is with the U.S. Marshal's Service New York/New Jersey Fugitive Task Force. "When I had him in the car, he said he knew sooner or later he would get caught." The fugitive warrant was issued for retail thefts in Pennsylvania.

Cherry Hill Police Detective Deborah Kappler alerted the U.S. marshals to help track Fussell down.

Fussell, originally from Maryland, listed an Owings Mills address on many of his applications.

"That resume can be 100 percent false," Cherry Hill Police Lt. William J. Kushina Jr. said.

Industry experts say retail theft is a growing problem, with 46 percent of it involving insiders, according to one survey.

"Thankfully, these are rare," Hollinger said of larger thefts. "Most criminals don't have those skills."

Hollinger said flaws in store and law enforcement practices could be discerned and exploited.

Companies urgently needing employees on the sales floor may not wait until background checks are complete. The cost may discourage detailed background checks.

On weekends, fewer armored-car pickups may leave cash to accumulate in an office safe, and missing money may not be discovered until a bank notices a discrepancy on a Monday, leaving more time for escape. The thefts that Fussell is accused of committing usually were timed around weekends.

Law enforcement makes violent crime and homeland security a priority. Because Fussell had no court record for theft, and because the thefts happened in numerous jurisdictions, tracking his job or any criminal information was difficult.

"He is pretty slick. He'd just go in, take the job and walk away with the money," said Detective Gregory Kneiss of Middletown Township, Bucks County, where Fussell is accused of stealing more than $5,000 from the Toys R Us in Langhorne.

The store's surveillance system was disabled and cash was taken from the safe July 9, 2006, after Fussell had worked there for about a week.

That day, police documents say, Fussell arrived before the store opened. Right after other employees showed up, he said he had to return home and would be back in an hour. He wasn't.

Store employees needed a locksmith to open the safe. They discovered the theft and cords cut on two security cameras.

The cost of a thorough preemployment background check for a company with hundreds of stores nationally can be prohibitive in an industry noted for high employee turnover, said Walter Palmer, a retail security expert.

New efforts are under way. Retailer theft reports to any police agency are now shared on a database run by the FBI.

There are also informal arrangements between police agencies. "We have a networking system that involves most retail between New York and Richmond, Va.," said Detective David Hill of Montgomery County, Md. Hill is one of the few investigators in the country who specialize in retail theft and retail fraud.

The industry is also using newer technology to combat crime. Online applications will one day link to databases, surveillance technology improvements, security tags on merchandise, and software that allows businesses to analyze vulnerabilities in store practices.

Many of the newer security measures are in place at the ShopRite in Cherry Hill, yet the $23,000 still was stolen.

The theft hit his company hard -- financially and emotionally -- said Ravitz, the vice president. Longtime employees of the ShopRite -- family owned and operated since 1968 -- felt it was like someone had stolen from them, he said.

"Bottom line," said Ravitz, "he got caught."


Missing Money

Police in two states allege that Anthony Fussell committed these thefts:

On Dec. 18, 2004, $35,479.13 was taken from a Value City safe in Ocean Township, N.J., where he was assistant manager.

On July 11, 2005, $41,443.75 was missing from a Ross Dress for Less in Philadelphia, where he was a store manager.

On Dec. 5, 2005, at the T.J. Maxx in Abington, $22,797.95 was missing from the safe after Fussell closed the store.

On March 27, 2006, $16,761 was missing from the cash deposits in the safe at the A.C. Moore in Mount Laurel, where Fussell worked.

On July 9, 2006, more than $5,000 was taken from the Toys R Us in Langhorne, where Fussell had been working for one week as a manager.

On Oct. 22, 2006, more than $38,000 was missing from the Kmart on Oregon Avenue in Philadelphia, where Fussell was hired as a manager.

On Aug. 31, 2007, $23,000 was taken from a safe in a Cherry Hill ShopRite where he worked as a new assistant manager.

On Nov. 12, 2007, $8,700 was missing from the safe at Dollar General on Wayne Avenue in Philadelphia, where Fussell was a manager. He never returned to the store.

SOURCE: Pennsylvania and New Jersey police agencies and court documents.

(Philadelphia Inquirer, The (KRT) -- 01/14/08)