Stores brace for thieves at holidays Retailers, police meet to exchange ideas about loss prevention

Shops urged to be cautious

Patrols added at malls as season provides xTC opportunities for theft

November 10, 1998|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

With the holidays approaching, retailers are preparing for an onrush of shoppers -- and thieves.

In Howard County, land of super stores and village center shopping malls, police and retailers are discussing ways to thwart shoplifters, robbers and burglars who cost Maryland businesses $375 million a year.

"We get a little bit of everything here," said Cpl. John Newnan, who patrols the area. "We see credit card and check fraud, grab and runs, commercial burglaries."

With Columbia's stores drawing customers from Baltimore and Washington, Howard County police are trying to focus attention on security after years of retailers' complacency because of low crime.

Besides beefing up patrols during the holiday shopping season, three police officers met with a dozen Columbia retailers last week at the Target Greatland in Columbia to discuss ways to improve safety and security.

"We don't have the crime other jurisdictions have," Newnan said yesterday. "Therefore, our retailers haven't been as cautious as others. [Thieves] have a great selection of stores in a concentrated area."

Store detectives and police hope last week's meeting and another scheduled Nov. 17 will lead to better communication in an industry that often reports only a fraction of thefts.

Last year, retailers in Columbia Crossing shopping center, which includes CompUSA and Dick's Sporting Goods, reported 28 cases of shoplifting, but police and retailers said thefts could have been more than 10 times higher.

Catching thieves can be a daunting task for store detectives, especially when holiday shoppers swarm their stores.

"You're looking for someone who doesn't fit," said Joe Creegan, regional loss-prevention manager for BJ's Wholesale Club Inc. "There are just a whole lot more people to sort through to find that person doing something they shouldn't. Normally, you have 100 people in the building. Now you have 200."

In the past decade, more retailers have installed video cameras and electronic sensors to stem shoplifting and employee theft, which cost most stores about 2 percent of their revenue. They also have stationed smiling clerks at store entrances to greet customers while looking for anyone suspicious.

On Friday morning, retailers traded stories and exchanged surveillance camera photographs showing thieves, including two who opened unattended cash registers and stole cash. Another group of thieves is passing fraudulent checks and then returning stolen goods for refunds.

Mark Perry, a loss-prevention manager for Upton's department store, has seen shoplifters of all ages and backgrounds -- from co-workers who help friends steal to housewives who swipe lingerie.

Across Route 175 at CompUSA, a store manager said thieves have stolen dozens of Windows 98 packages and digital video discs.

At the Columbia Target, thieves are responsible for reducing its $32 million in annual revenue by 1.14 percent so far this year -- despite two full-time detectives and 14 video surveillance cameras, Target officials said.

To reduce theft and improve safety for shoppers, police are also adding patrols in the area and stationing officers at shopping centers, such as Columbia Crossing and The Mall at Columbia, Capt. Bill McMahon said.

"There are a lot more people out there," McMahon said, "a lot more merchandise, a lot more opportunity."

The meeting Friday was the first step toward crime prevention, police said, because retailers were discussing crime for the first time.

"They just started brainstorming," said Cpl. Paul Steppe, a community services officer who attended the meeting. "That's exactly what we wanted. There's a wealth of information we can learn. You're talking about billions of dollars every year that we eventually pay for one way or another."

If retailers would like more information about crime prevention, call Cpl. Paul Steppe at 410-313-4783.

Pub Date: 11/10/98

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