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USA TODAY, Storyful
- Retailers have been clamoring for help when it comes to organized retail thefts
- 75% of retailers reported seeing some increase in organized retail thefts throughout 2020
- California’s Proposition 47 raised the felony threshold for shoplifting from $450 to $950
LOS ANGELES – The man laid a large black garbage bag on the ground of a Walgreens and nonchalantly grabbed products from shelves and threw them in before he lazily hauled the goods out of the the San Francisco store on his bicycle.
Footage of the jarring incident and a number of viral videos of thefts in prominent stores in the area are sparking questions about what retailers say is a drastic rise in retail thefts in recent years, both in California – which has two of the top five cities most targeted by organized retail thefts – and across the country.
Retail thefts in California have resulted in some of the largest shopping chains taking unprecedented steps to cut their store hours, beef up new security measures and close locations entirely.
All the while retailers, local officials and criminal justice advocates point the finger at one another in attempting to explain the phenomenon. Some blame a shift in state laws that lowered penalties for the crimes. Others point to the nature of the crime shifting from run-of-the-mill shoplifting to organized criminal rings, thanks in part to the explosive growth of online marketplaces that allow re-selling of stolen goods.
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Shoplifting in stores is a common problem, but retailers have been clamoring for help when it comes to organized retail thefts. In those, members of a group work together to steal merchandise and sometimes resell the products, a practice that can be used to fund other criminal activity.
In its annual survey, the National Retail Federation found such crimes cost U.S. retailers an average of more than $719,000 per $1 billion in sales in 2020, a relatively small number but one that has grown in recent years.
The amount of organized retail thefts has nearly doubled since 2015 when organized retail thefts were estimated at costing retailers $453,000 per $1 billion in sales.
The survey includes the top 10 cities that retailers said were most impacted by these types of crimes. At the top of the list was Los Angeles, followed by Chicago, Miami and New York. San Francisco came in at No. 5 and Sacramento at 10.
Seventy-five percent of retailers reported seeing some increase in organized retail thefts throughout 2020 and many said they had changed policies, whether it was curbing returns and allocating more resources for loss prevention and technology to slow the stream of thefts.
Many retailers in recent years have started placing more and more products behind security locks, adding more security cameras and security tags to prevent goods from being taken. More have also hired loss prevention or security guards.
Some stores are using technology in new ways in hopes of preventing thefts, including Home Depot, which has been installing bluetooth technology in some of its power tools that, if not activated at a register at checkout, won’t work if taken from a store.
San Francisco becomes flashpoint in theft concerns
In San Francisco, some stores have off-duty police officers standing guard in hopes of detouring thefts, though most retailers have policies discouraging employees or guards from physically stopping people out of safety fears or potential lawsuits.
Retailers say the city has become a target and claim thefts have grown out of control, though data from the San Francisco Police Department seems to stunt that narrative. Data so far this year shows thefts are down 9% compared to last year.
Along with the footage of a man calmly loading merchandise into a trash bag in a Sal Francisco Walgreens, another recent viral video showed a group of about 10 men running from a Neiman Marcus store with their arms filled with luxury purses and other stolen merchandise.
Retailers say the nature of the crimes have changed: People shoplift in mass quantities and sell the stolen goods in online marketplaces, allowing sellers a sense of anonymity.
Some retailers in the city have been making serious adjustments. Walgreens has closed 17 of its stores in the last five years, largely because of thefts, according to Phil Caruso, a spokesman for the drugstore chain.
Caruso told USA TODAY that retail thefts in San Francisco are four times the national average, which has resulted in the chain spending $10 million a year on security, more than 35 times its average across the country.
Target announced earlier this month all of its stores in the city would close at 6 p.m. because of crime – an unprecedented move the retailer told USA TODAY hadn’t been employed anywhere else in the country.
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“This whole thing has actually been going on for a while now and retailers have been very concerned about it,” said Rachel Michelin, president of the California Retailer’s Association. “It’s just kind of hit a, you know, DEFCON 5, I guess now with these videos and seeing some of the changes in stores.”
She said some retailers have become discouraged and stopped reporting such crimes because of what she said was an unwillingness to prosecute them.
The San Francisco District Attorney’s Office rebutted such claims and pointed to its retail theft task force aimed at breaking up criminal theft rings. One operation last year recovered more than $8 million in stolen merchandise.
“No retailer or its employees should have to suffer from brazen, organized thefts. These crimes are profitable because of the vast criminal network behind them, which our office is dismantling,” said Rachel Marshall, a spokeswoman for the office.
What’s behind the thefts? Can they be stopped?
The endless fingerpointing over who is to blame and the root of the issue has become common.
In its survey, the National Retail Federation said retailers cited changing laws and penalties as one of the primary drivers of increased thefts, noting some criminals were taking advantage of laws that increased the threshold of what is considered a felony.
The survey said many states have adjusted this threshold and with it criminals have stolen more goods knowing penalties won’t be as severe – adding nearly two-thirds of retailers have reported an increase in organized retail thefts since changes in laws.
But the claim runs contrary to data and numerous studies.
In a study released in 2017, Pew Charitable Trusts found that while more than three dozen states had raised the amount criminals could steal before a crime was charged as a felony, it had no impact overall on property crime or larceny. States that raised the threshold reported about the same amount of crime as others who did not.
US task force to fight organized retail theft
Federal and Florida law enforcement officials announced they are creating the nation’s first task force to tackle the growing problem of organized retail theft, which costs retailers some $30 billion in losses each year. (July 9)
California voters passed Proposition 47 in 2014 that raised the felony threshold for shoplifting from $450 to $950. Since then, retailers and police have pointed to the change as a primary culprit in increased losses at the stores.
But Charis Kubrin, a professor at the University of California, Irvine who studied Proposition 47 and its impact on crimes across the state, found the law had little to no impacts on crimes and while there was a small increase in larcenies and auto thefts, the shift was “nonexistent at best, very modest at worst.” Kubrin noted multiple examinations, including a recent study focusing on Los Angeles, came to the same conclusion.
“You hear these anecdotes, like people walking around with calculators adding up how much they can steal without being charged with a felony and you see the videos of people just running out of stores. But we’ve had a lot of unrest. We’ve had a pandemic. We have high unemployment rates. We have economic issues,” she said.
“So the thought that all of this is because of Prop 47, well, if we’re going to base that hunch on anything, it should go back to what the previous handful of studies have found. And so far, it’s that Prop 47 doesn’t seem to be the culprit. Or at least, the major culprit.”
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Criminal justice advocates in the state have continued to defend the measure, noting it was proposed in the midst of staggering overcrowding in the state’s prison system.
Lenore Anderson, the founder president of Californians for Safety and Justice, which helped write Proposition 47, said the measure saved the state hundreds of millions of dollars in incarceration fees and those savings are going to recovery and diversion programs in communities that need them.
“People seem to think California did something incredibly progressives with passing Prop 47. The truth is the state was a laggard,” she said, noting that many states have much higher felony thresholds for theft. “This blame game is par for the course and honestly explains why it’s so hard to change the criminal justice system.”
Some retailers are hoping federal legislation could be a saving grace.
Jason Brewer, a spokesman for the national Retail Industry Leaders Association, said retailers have been advocating for a bill dubbed the INFORM Consumers Act. The measure takes aim at China and counterfeit goods but could have a deep impact on U.S. retailers. It would force online marketplaces, such as Facebook, eBay, Craigslist and Amazon, to authenticate information about sellers and the products they are selling.
The rise in online marketplaces, especially amid the coronavirus pandemic, has created a “perfect storm” of sorts, Brewer said, noting this measure could cut off some of the financial incentive for these crimes.
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“One of the big reasons that frankly needs more attention is the anonymity of the Internet and online marketplaces,” Brewer said. “It has made it very lucrative to sell stolen goods online. Twenty years ago you didn’t have as many choices and it was much riskier to do. Now, it’s simple, so this could really have a huge impact.”