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Pro thieves: they’re shopping more often

He left his companion waiting in the car at the main entrance of Dollar’s Your Independent Grocer. Shopping list in hand, he went directly to the meat section. There, he quickly loaded a couple hundred dollars worth of items–six T-bone steaks, a prime rib roast–into one of the reusable shopping bags so popular nowadays.

It was a Saturday afternoon, which typically meant long lines at checkout. Not that it mattered. Bypassing the cashiers, he hit the exit doors at a brisk pace–though not so fast as to attract unwanted attention–quickly slipped into the waiting car and disappeared into traffic. Elapsed time: Perhaps two minutes.

Variations of this scene were played out numerous times last year in North Bay, Ont. Theft from area stores became so rampant, grocers in the city of 54,000 banded together to form an ad hoc group that now acts as everything from a tip line to a resource for sharing best practices on how to combat thieves.

Subsequent meetings with local police revealed that the thieves weren’t down-on-their-luck types trying to put food on the table, but part of organized crime rings stealing for profit. High-end meat and cheese were among the most popular targets, along with other necessities like baby formula and razors. “Midway through the year, a number of retailers started talking and realized we were seeing what appeared to be an increase in organized theft,” says Dollar’s owner, Brian Dollar. “Thieves were specifically targeting certain stores and coming in with an actual shopping list. They knew in advance what they wanted, where they could take it to sell it, and how much money they would get.”

Theft has always been a problem for grocers. But as Dollar and many grocers across the country can attest, there has been a surge in the amount of theft from organized crime. Meanwhile in the United States, professional theft of food has been linked to the funding of terrorism, which as one might assume, has raised the alarm bells of law enforcement officers in that country.

Professional thieves aren’t just well organized, their footmen are also remarkably fast and efficient. A retail theft expert in Chicago recently estimated that one professional thief, or “booster” is equivalent to four or five amateur shoplifters. Dollar says that some thieves get in and out of his store in 30 seconds. It’s common for these pro bandits to make off with $300 to $400 worth of merchandise in a single heist, adds Richard Hampel, a detective constable with the North Bay police, who worked with Dollar and his fellow grocers to combat the thieves.

Reusable bags are a major part of professional thieves’ arsenal

Meat is a particularly attractive target. It commands a high street price and in many cases doesn’t feature a UPC code that enables it to be traced. Hampel says that thieves sometimes sell the stolen merchandise from their home or take it to local drug dealers in exchange for cocaine. In some cases, goods make their way through a sophisticated network of fencing channels.

Steve Sharpe, owner of Sharpe’s Food Market in the small Ontario town of Campbellford, recalls how successful thieves were at his store. “We were losing stuff by the cart load. We’ve always had the students and the petty thieves, and that adds up too, but the professionals were hard to deal with.” The more canny ones would often have an accomplice hold open the entrance door and simply abscond with a grocery cart full of goods when the coast was clear, says Sharpe. Other times, a thief operating solo would just wait patiently by the entrance and make a hasty exit when the opportunity arose.

Sharpe says the reusable bags so popular with Canadians have become a major part of professional  thieves’ arsenal because they’re capable of holding a lot of merchandise. And the bags have become so common, they no longer look out of place in a store, even when shoppers fill them up while browsing the aisles. “We’re saving the planet, but the downside is these thieves are putting items into them,” he says.

Sharpe says he first noticed an increase in criminal activity about two years ago, but was unprepared for how brazen and adept thieves were. “I think that we were a little naive,” he admits. “But we’ve implemented some programs and some equipment that makes it much more difficult.” These measures include everything from training that helps employees better detect criminal behaviour, to a new security gate–named the Deputy and manufactured by Quebec company Integral–that automatically locks up when people try to exit through the store entrance. It also has a “reach over” sensor that detects when someone is trying to hand stolen merchandise to an accomplice outside the entrance.

But even with these antitheft measures in place, Sharpe admits that it has been impossible to eradicate organized theft completely. Independent grocers are particularly vulnerable, he says, since they don’t have the resources of the major chains to invest in loss-prevention techniques.

John Scott, president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers in Toronto, calls organized theft “an increasing concern” for his group’s members. The organization is developing resources and strategies to help combat the problem. “It’s always an issue, and right now, from the retailers we’ve talked to, it appears to be a very important issue we should be dealing with,” he says.

Fred Tarasoff, founder of Tarasoff Consulting, a Vancouver-based firm devoted to minimizing retail loss, says grocery stores are a favourite target of thieves because they present a relatively low risk of being caught. Tarasoff interviewed more than 300 shoplifters to learn the “tricks of the trade” and found that grocery stores are an easy target because they have little in the form of antitheft devices; typically have hidden areas that create opportunities to pocket items, and are overreliant on the services of easy-to-spot loss-prevention officers.

Organized retail theft took off in Canada in 2007

As it turns out, store security guards may easily catch someone pocketing a packet of pistachios, but they’re no match for wily pros. It’s difficult to estimate how much revenue is lost to professional thieves. Mark Beazley, director of communications with the Retail Council of Canada in Toronto, says that retail theft costs Canadian businesses an estimated $3 billion a year, or about 1.5% of all annual sales. But his organization doesn’t have specific numbers for the grocery channel.

Beazley does say that organized retail crime really began to take off in Canada around 2007, when stiffer penalties in the United States forced gangs to look beyond American borders. “More and more, these crime groups were seeing Canada as a target,” says Beazley.

Rhett Asher, vice-president of industry relations for the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), a Washington-based advocacy organization that represents an estimated 1,500 food retailers and wholesalers throughout the U.S., says that organized crime costs U.S. retailers an estimated US$33 billion a year. It can take myriad forms, ranging from employee theft to late night smash and grabs and more sophisticated operations involving teams of as many as 15 people. Asher says the funds from these enterprises go toward two main “buckets”: drugs and, more ominously, terrorism– which is why retail crime is increasingly on the radar of U.S. law enforcement agencies such as the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement division. “When you see the number of resources that are applied to a problem, it gives you an idea of how complex it is,” Asher says.

Retail theft has long been a high reward, low penalty crime. But Asher says that with federal authorities now involved, and regional associations to curb theft being formed (similar to the one in North Bay), grocers are slowly starting to tackle the problem head-on. But retailers still feel like they’re playing a never-ending game of Whack-A-Mole. As soon as one criminal enterprise is squashed, another immediately pops up to take its place.

Sites like eBay and Craigslist are a boon for thieves

According to a 2010 training presentation by Crime Stoppers USA, there are a couple of telltale signs that organized theft is occurring in a region: area retailers continually being out of stock of “high-theft items” like razor blades and baby formula, and an abundance of merchandise being sold below retail price on online e-commerce sites like eBay and Craigslist. Asher says these sites have been a boon for thieves, enabling them to sell purloined items for upwards of 70 or 80 cents on the dollar. Before these online sites, stolen items were fetching literally pennies on the dollar and being sold on a street corner or from the back of a truck.

In fact, it’s not hard to find potentially stolen merchandise for sale online. A search for “baby formula” on websites like Craigslist Toronto and Kijiji Ontario produced several results, as did a search for razors. One Craigslist Toronto poster appeared capable of selling women’s Schick razors in bulk. “Let me know how many you want and maybe we can strike up a deal,” the seller urged prospective customers.

While there’s no hard evidence that these products were illicitly obtained–many sellers of formula, for instance, claim that they’ve simply switched brands or their child began breastfeeding–Beazley says that purchasing perishable items like baby formula online can present a grave danger to consumers. “I would venture a guess that career criminals aren’t exactly concerned by expiration dates, and that’s one of the dangers that consumers have to be aware of when they’re seeing deals potentially online or at _ ea markets or other places where these things pop up,” he says. “Often they may be expired food items or items that have [recall] issues.”

Consumer demand for more expensive items is fuelling organized crime, particularly in a sagging economy, says Beazley. “What’s driving this whole thing is that you’ve got a black market for goods,” he says. “Whatever stores these criminals are targeting, whether it be a grocer or a general merchandise retailer, it’s driven by consumer demand.” A rare instance, it would appear, of the customer being wrong.

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