The 21st-century shoplifter isn't a teenage girl slipping earrings into her purse, but often a sophisticated network of computer-savvy, highly organized professionals who make retail theft their full-time job, Lone Tree police say.
“It's huge and it costs us a lot of money,” said Acting Lone Tree Police Chief Ron Pinson. “We've had groups come in that have stolen up to $10,000 worth of merchandise. These are people that are often doing this for their living.”
Professional thieves often travel from mall to mall, and city to city, stealing everything from jeans to laptops. The stolen merchandise is then sold, often on such well-known, trusted sites as eBay or Amazon.
Such high-dollar thefts occur about once a week, Pinson said, and those who engineer them are endlessly innovative.
“They do come up with new schemes,” he said. “Sometimes the law is a little bit behind them.”
They range from the bold — those who use metal-lined shopping bags that pass undetected through security systems — to the subtle. Recently, thieves used credit card numbers obtained from banks that had not yet assigned the numbers to individual cardholders.
“That was a new one to us,” Pinson said.
Lone Tree Police and other agencies recently helped nab a group from China that had used fraudulent credit cards to purchase about a dozen computers. The authorities halted them at Denver International Airport just before they were to leave the country.
Lone Tree officers work with area retailers to try to manage the problem. The department operates a substation at Park Meadows mall, and stays in close contact with the mall's security staff. Additionally, most stores employ their own security — or loss prevention — staff.
Despite all those measures, shoplifting is not a crime that's likely to go away.
“For more than 30 years I've been in shopping centers, shoplifting has always been an element of retail,” said Pamela Schenck-Kelly, Park Meadows' general manager. “There are the young kids who are learning their life lessons and the professionals that are really what leads to heavy shrinkage or the need for bigger markups. Today, it's become part of doing business. It's unfortunate.”
The more sophisticated forms of shoplifting are known in the industry as organized retail crime. It's become so prevalent a group of retailers, law enforcement agencies and prosecutors formed the Colorado Organized Retail Crime Alliance in early 2012.
In May, Gov. John Hickenlooper signed a bill that strengthens existing laws in an effort to tamp down the activity.
Losses attributed to organized retail crime are estimated at $15 billion to $30 billion annually, according to industry experts.
The 2012 National Retail Federation's Organized Retail Crime survey shows 96 percent of retailers surveyed say they've been victims of organized retail crime — the highest level in the survey's eight-year history.
The items most commonly coveted by thieves include designer fashions, cell phones, energy drinks, pain relievers, cigarettes, electric toothbrushes and high-end liquor.