Shoplifting rings target grocery-list items -- Gazette.Net


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Laundry detergent. Razor blades, Infant formula. Diapers.

They might not sound like the sexiest of consumer products, but for thieves who manage to slip in and out with cartloads from several stores a day, sometimes aided by lookouts and accomplices who distract busy workers, they can be solid gold, police and retailers say.

In fact, the authorities say, the problem is worsening.

With the Washington-Baltimore region sitting just a rung or two from the top-10 areas in the nation for organized retail theft, local police departments and stores are girding to curb shoplifting, which is expected to pick up during the holiday season.

Prince George’s County police, in particular, have organized to get ahead of the problem, which increasingly includes the theft of grocery-list items shamelessly wheeled out the front door in bulk.

“This is big money,” said Prince George’s police Lt. Bradley S. Pyle, who leads a new section focused on retail theft that the county formed in March.

One Safeway store lost about $15,000 per month from thefts of Tide detergent alone, Pyle said.

Before, it was easy for investigators at the district-level, where shoplifting was being handled, to be too overwhelmed by shootings and dangerous crimes to focus on the problem, said Pyle, a former investigative supervisor for District 3 in Palmer Park.

“The biggest thing that woke us up to it was that the county executive [Rushern Baker (D)] has been trying to get more businesses in the county, and stores said they needed one place to turn to deal with their needs,” Pyle said.

Managers worried about lawsuits and the danger of confronting thieves often direct employees not to intervene, even if they see or suspect that goods going out the door weren’t purchased.

Since the Prince George’s special retail crime unit got started nine months ago, it has investigated the shoplifting of about $10 million worth of goods, Pyle said.

In a recent survey by the National Retail Federation, 95 percent of stores reported being victims of organized theft rings, and two-thirds said the problem was getting worse, said Joseph LaRocca, senior asset protection adviser for the federation.

Although black market operations of such “booster rings,” which often steal from bigger stores and sell to distributors or smaller shops, are hard to detect and quantify, they are part of some $35.3 billion in actual losses retailers nationwide claimed last year, a $1.8 billion increase from 2009, LaRocca said.

And the rings, a growing phenomenon in retail crime around the country, contributed to the problem in Washington, D.C., Baltimore and the counties around them, accounting for the region’s ranking as high as 11th or 12th in retailers’ loss reports.

Not all thieves taking daily-use items such as Huggies are part of groups, said Andrew Gucciardo, a crime analyst for Takoma Park police.

Stealing products that people “can’t do without” increases in a down economy because they always will sell, Gucciardo said.

Deterring such crime was made harder when state lawmakers doubled the threshold for felony theft in 2009 from $500 to $1,000, said Jeffrey Zellmer, legislative director for the Maryland Retailers Association.

“It gave a cost-of-living increase to criminals,” Zellmer said.

Whether it is done by groups or individuals, shoplifting losses often go unreported because “stores don’t want their competitors to know, and it scares people,” Zellmer said.

Complicating matters for retailers, during the crucial peak buying season many stores don’t want to inconvenience regular customers by putting high-dollar goods, such as electronics, under lock and key.

To help retailers during the current season, Pyle said his unit is working directly with stores’ loss-prevention employees and has stepped up surveillance.

In fact, surveillance and undercover work, planned in consultation with the Prince George’s County State’s Attorney’s Office, enabled Prince George’s police to apprehend men involved in large thefts of Tide detergent from Wegman’s in Glenarden, then get one of them to talk about other thefts and where the goods were sold.

One business caught in the investigation, which ran from late October into early November, was World Nails on Landover Road in Hyattsville, where, according to Detective Harrison Sprague, the salon’s associates paid $85 for nearly $1,200 worth of goods, including detergent, shower gel and razors.

Two women and one man at the salon were charged with felony theft, and police serving a warrant after the sting found closed-circuit camera footage of other stolen goods purchased at the salon over a three-month period, Sprague said.

“The way a lot of these criminals think is that a person dealing a couple of dollars in Tide is going to be overlooked,” Sprague said. “But we’re seeing a bigger picture that wasn’t being seen before — that it adds up to an astronomical value.”

By sending out officers undercover and flipping thieves they capture to help law enforcement, police hope to stop more “booster” rings before they steal, Pyle said.

“I want them to be scared that even if it’s somebody they know, they could be being used to put them in jail,” Pyle said.

Although Montgomery County police report that shoplifting incidents for the year through September decreased from 2,117 in 2010 to 1,709 this year, it appears the county has not been immune to the booster rings’ work.

Pyle said he will be meeting with Montgomery County detectives in hopes that they can charge people who bought goods insinuated to be stolen for resale at a market in Montgomery County.

In and around Baltimore, shoplifting by individuals for their own needs has increased as food banks have run out of goods, and unemployment benefits have expired, said Al Banthem, who manages loss prevention for the 17-store Mars grocery chain.

Banthem said that pinpointing how much is shoplifted is difficult because losses include damaged and out-of-date inventory.

However, the fact that Mars has no-self checkout counters and has employees trained in what to look for helps, Banthem said.

But the fact that more people now bring their own bags into the stores “complicates things,” so employees usually wait until a suspected shoplifter goes past the cash register before they act, he said.

mhyslop@gazette.net