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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

As Economy Dips, Arrests for Shoplifting Soar

Recently laid off from a job building trailers in Elkhart, Ind., Mr. Johnson came up a dollar short at Martin’s Supermarket last month when he went to buy a $4.99 bottle of sleep medication. So, “for some stupid reason,” he tried to shoplift it and was immediately arrested.

“I was desperate, I guess,” said Mr. Johnson, 25, who said he had never been arrested before. As the economy has weakened, shoplifting has increased, and retail security experts say the problem has grown worse this holiday season. Shoplifters are taking everything from compact discs and baby formula to gift cards and designer clothing.

Police departments across the country say that shoplifting arrests are 10 percent to 20 percent higher this year than last. The problem is probably even greater than arrest records indicate since shoplifters are often banned from stores rather than arrested.

Much of the increase has come from first-time offenders like Mr. Johnson making rash decisions in a pinch, the authorities say. But the ease with which stolen goods can be sold on the Internet has meant a bigger role for organized crime rings, which also engage in receipt fraud, fake price tagging and gift card schemes, the police and security experts say.

And as temptation has grown for potential thieves, so too has stores’ vulnerability.

“More people are desperate economically, retailers are operating with leaner staffs and police forces are cutting back or being told to deprioritize shoplifting calls,” said Paul Jones, the vice president of asset protection for the Retail Industry Leaders Association.

The problem, he said, could be particularly acute this December, “the month of the year when shoplifting always goes way up.”

Two of the largest retail associations say that more than 80 percent of their members are reporting sharp increases in shoplifting, according to surveys conducted in the last two months.

Compounding the problem, stores are more reluctant to stop suspicious customers because they fear scaring away much-needed business. And retailers are increasingly trying to save money by hiring seasonal workers who, security experts say, are themselves more likely to commit fraud or theft and are less practiced at catching shoplifters than full-time employees are.

More than $35 million in merchandise is stolen each day nationwide, and about one in 11 people in America have shoplifted, according to the nonprofit National Association for Shoplifting Prevention.

“We used to see more repeat offenders doing it because of drug addiction,” said Samyah Jubran, an assistant district attorney in Knoxville who for 13 years has handled the bulk of the shoplifting cases there. “But many of these new offenders may be doing it because of the economic situation. Maybe they’re hurting at home, and they’re taking a risk they may not take otherwise.” [Mark Godsey]

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Comments

It is worth noting that many states, including Washington, desperately need to update their shoplifting laws. Here, a theft of over 250 dollars will land a person in Superior Court, facing a felony. Probably appropriate 32 years ago, when the law was written. Given that the supervision system is geared toward violent offenders and when looking at comparable crimes, this needs to change.

Posted by: Aaron A. Pelley | Jan 6, 2009 5:04:16 AM

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