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Shoplifting woes go beyond Winona Ryder

Weak economy and holiday frenzy mean more shoplifting. But much of the pilfering is not linked to poverty.

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It's especially tricky for retailers whose sales are already faltering. In a tough economy, the first instinct is to cut staff - and security guards often top the list. Mr. McGoey says that is the "absolute wrong thing to do in a down economy."

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New antitheft technologies

But while retailers may be scaling back on personnel, new tools and technologies are allowing them to get more aggressive in combating the problem. Surveillance cameras, for instance, have become much more sophisticated, with digital images and the ability to monitor several stores from one location. More retailers are installing electronic tags, cables, or hanger locks on high-ticket items. Others are buying cash registers with computers that detect price switching and refund fraud.

But while all of this is important in catching shoplifters, a bigger problem is employee theft - which accounts for a full 70 percent of all "inventory shrinkage."

That makes it important to screen potential employees thoroughly, say experts.

Internal theft is "really where the problem is," says Julius Trimble, a security consultant in Bonaire, Ga. These are people with keys who don't look suspicious if they're carrying boxes out the door - and know their way around the security system.

Back in Houston, Marks says screening employees is critical. He does full background checks, conducts random drug tests, and only hires long-term, full-time employees. "We've only missed once," he says. A decade ago, an employee walked off with about $100,000 in gold wire stock. Though Marks was sure of the culprit, police were never able to prosecute.

While shoplifting laws vary among states, most include fines and jail time. But getting already-burdened police departments and district attorneys to prosecute is difficult, says Mr. Trimble: "From what I've seen, shoplifting is not really taken seriously."

Mr. Sennewald says the answer is not to toughen laws or increase prosecutions; it's to put shoplifters in diversionary programs that would teach them theft's consequences for the economy. "That would relieve the burden on the district attorneys and the courts, and create less resentment in the judicial system," he says.

In Ryder's case, prosecutors are asking for three years' probation and restitution. While some pundits have decried the fact that she could get off easily, many security experts say the county is making an example of her. Most shoplifters never see the inside of a courthouse.

But her case points up another important aspect of the crime: There is no one profile of shoplifters, no single set of motives. "Loss-prevention teams are no longer looking at particular types of people, but particular types of behavior," says Mr. Butler.

Filching facts

Average loss per shoplifting incident: $195.73

Average loss per employee theft: $1,445.86

Percentage of shoplifting cases referred for prosection: 24

Retail chains reporting the highest losses from shoplifting: Household furnishings, drug-stores, recorded music/videos

Source: 2001 National Retail Security Survey, University of Florida