Colorado Springs retailers are facing a new kind of shoplifter: professional gangs who sell their ill-gotten gains for drugs.
“We have the same kind of shoplifting as any city our size,” said Dave Husted, crime prevention officer for the Colorado Springs Police Department. “It’s a problem here, particularly with meth(amphetamine) addicts.”
Shoplifting costs retailers $10 billion annually nationwide.
To combat the losses in Colorado Springs, retailers and police formed the Retail Security Association. The group, which was started in 1998, meets monthly to share tips about repeat offenders and how to combat the crime.
The association consists mostly of loss prevention professionals from the city’s big box retailers, but retail stores of any size are welcome. Husted said that about 40 people normally attend the meetings, which are held at 9 a.m. on the last Tuesday of every month at the Stetson Hills station.
“We have people come from the stores, and these are groups that are competitors,” he said. “But they all have the same problem, so they share pictures from the cameras and let each other know about specific, repeat offenders.”
For example, a Target representative might share photos of a man who fought security guards who tried to arrest him, or a Wal-Mart representative might talk about a girl who had a knife when she was stopped. Each retailer is trying to do everything it can to stem the flow of stolen items from their store, Husted said.
“Sometimes they have photos of people who got away,” he said. “And someone at another store will know who the person is – and they can be arrested. It definitely makes it easier to prosecute the crime.”
Wal-Mart executives say the nation’s largest retailer is involved in many different organizations across the country with aims to prevent crime.
“It helps us be better at what we do,” spokeswoman Sharon Webber said. “If we can cut down on retail theft, then that is what we want to do. Retail theft affects everyone – consumers and businesses. So, we want to do our part to cut it down.”
Nathanial Guy, director of security at the Citadel Mall, said the RSA is beneficial.
“We used to go,” he said. “But we leave the shoplifting prevention up to the individual stores. It’s a very important project.”
Guy described the group as a networking program that allows retailers exchange.
“We share information on the different type of rings, the techniques they use,” he said. “It exposes the crime in a way that hasn’t been done before. Any time you have more knowledge and more information, you’re better equipped to deal with it.”
In the first four years of the program, shoplifting incidents dropped 25 percent citywide, according to a report filed with the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing, a national nonprofit organization. The report showed an increasing problem with professional shoplifters and the way the Colorado Springs police department dealt with the problem.
“Before the association, there was no way to compare who was doing the shoplifting and if they had repeat offenders,” Husted said. “We also set up a Yahoo groups site, so retailers can exchange information between the meetings.”
That Internet site allowed a retailer in Pueblo to put information about a shoplifter on the Web, complete with a description of the car. Another RSA member saw a car matching the description in the parking lot and called police. Suspects were caught in Colorado Springs, but the Pueblo police also were able to file charges.
The report filed shows that by combining information, police were able to track repeat offenders and charge them with other crimes: narcotics, forgeries and burglaries.
“Before this project started, the loss prevention officer and law enforcement officer would serve and release offenders without exchanging information with other stores,” the report said. “The results were that the suspects would be served and released on that offense, but would be free to go to another store and attempt to shoplift again. The extent of the problem was the individuals were able to conduct this behavior throughout the city without being identified as someone who does this for a living. The individuals were no easier to identify even after being arrested for shoplifting numerous times.”
The RSA was instrumental in identifying and shutting down two shoplifting rings in Colorado Springs. According to the report, one was a family that was banned from many stores.
The police department facilitates the group meetings, but cannot provide specific information about crimes to outside groups. However, the retail store representatives are able to share any information.
The RSA also provides tips about how to prevent the crime – making it more difficult to take merchandise from the store without paying for it.
The police department recommends that stores rethink the way they display merchandise. Smaller stores should keep expensive clothing away from the front door, Husted said.
“We go around and around with some stores about doing this,” he said. “It’s the best way to stop shoplifters from just reaching in the door and taking something. But stores want their best items closest to the door to draw people in.”
Shoplifting gangs take advantage of store’s merchandising, as well as understaffed, small retail stores. Husted said a gang of three people might enter a store, with two of them distracting the sales clerk.
“They take the sales clerk into the back, keeping her distracted,” he said. “And the third person just steals whatever they can. Paying attention is the best way to stop that kind of shoplifting; make sure the third person knows you’re watching him – you’re aware he’s in the store.”
Larger stores have loss prevention departments, security guards and high-tech cameras and anti-theft devices attached to their clothing goods. All of these, Husted said, will deter some shoplifters.