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110208 Organized retail crime expected to rise duing holidays
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Organized retail crime expected to rise duing holidays

Victoria Colliver, Chronicle Staff Writer
Thursday, October 30, 2008

Organized retail crime, which FBI officials estimate accounts for as much as $30 billion in losses a year nationwide, is on the rise and expected to increase in the holiday season and as the economy worsens, according to experts speaking at the Northern California Organized Retail Crime Conference and Symposium in Newark.

"This is a lot more serious than just shoplifting because of the organization and sophistication," said state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, who spoke at the conference and is planning to reintroduce legislation that would enhance the penalties for people convicted of organized retail theft.

Shoplifting laws typically treat such crimes as petty or grand theft, a level that many lawmakers and retail executives consider inadequate when it comes to organized retail crime rings.

What makes organized retail theft different from a conventional shoplifter swiping a DVD or a pair of jeans for personal use is that these criminals send out a band of cohorts - often with shopping lists of items to steal - that can swipe thousands of dollars of merchandise within minutes.

Some crime rings plant someone inside the retail operation to aid in the theft, and others use standard techniques such as spilling something to distract store employees while the crime is in progress. Stolen goods are often resold at flea markets, over the Internet or shipped to other states or countries.

Retail experts say criminals are increasingly using technology - cell phones and devices that can duplicate store tags, false bar codes and receipts - as a means to outwit sales personnel or in-store security.

Even "booster bags" - aluminum-foil lined bags that block the ability of store sensors to detect surveillance tags - have gotten more difficult to detect as thieves create lined "booster baby strollers," often complete with a real child.

"The ingenuity is amazing. If it were only being put to use for something legitimate," said Bill Dombrowski, president and chief executive officer of the California Retailers Association.

Joe LaRocca, vice president of loss prevention for the National Retail Federation, said criminals are becoming increasingly dangerous. He said the poor economy may serve as a trigger for when a person resorts to shoplifting or becomes violent to avoid capture.

"We're starting to see a whole new level of aggressiveness in which they're fighting back," said LaRocca, citing an incident earlier this month at an Arizona Mervyns in which a bystander was stabbed by shoplifting suspects after he tried to help in a scuffle with security guards.

The conference was organized by Universal Surveillance Systems, a company based in Rancho Cucamonga (San Bernardino County) that develops loss-prevention technologies. The company is beta testing a device that would detect booster bags entering the retailer and alert managers via page devices.

Organized retail crime stats

-- Organized retail crime in the United States accounts for $15 billion to $30 billion in losses a year.

-- In California alone, retail crime accounts for about $242 million in lost sales taxes.

-- 85 percent of retailers surveyed told the National Retail Federation that they had been victims of organized crime in the past year.

Source: National Retail Federation



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