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As criminal gangs get smarter, retailers find tools to fight back

Written on September 5, 2011

As London retailers start loading up their shelves with Christmas merchandise, they are stepping up efforts to combat increasingly bold and sophisticated thieves responsible for millions of pounds a year in lost goods.

These are not the petty shoplifters and price-tag switchers, although they are part of the problem.On retailers’ radar are the organized gangs that hijack merchandise-laden trailers from loading docks; swoop up racks of razor blades and bolt; stuff high-end electronics into foil-lined bags to disable security tags; and slip expensive products into cheap merchandise boxes before check out.

Recent crackdowns

Recent crackdowns in Oxford Street have resulted in dozens of arrests, but the organized thieves continue to multiply.Some use computers to replicate fake receipts for making cash returns, while others use fake credit cards or checks to purchase gift cards and other expensive goods. In some cases, employees are recruited to look the other way or to provide details about cameras or security systems.

Gang members carry comprehensive shopping lists. They have designated roles, such as driver, lookout, picker, packer and supervisor. They use hand signals, cell phones, GPS devices and other electronic gadgets.

And they are increasingly violent. More retailers are reporting that the criminals they apprehend are resorting to violence, putting store employees and customers at risk.
The stolen goods are sold to fences who resell them on the Internet, car boot sales, and from retail storefronts. Sometimes the merchandise is returned for gift cards that are resold through similar channels. Other times, the stolen goods are sold back to the retailers through crooked distributors.

London and Oxford Street crime hotspot

Retailers and law-enforcement agencies note that London and Oxford Street in particular is becoming a hotbed for such organized criminal activity.

Michelle Jenking, executive director of the The Retailers Association, said incidents of organized retail theft in London have nearly doubled over the past few years. She partially attributes the increase to the weak economy, high unemployment and a large population of illegal drug users who resort to crime to support their habits.

Estimates range £200-£400 in increased cost which is passed on to consumers “It’s the consumer who winds up paying for those losses,” she said.
To combat the increasingly savvy thieves, retailers are locking up products, installing sophisticated surveillance and merchandise-tracking systems and setting up internal security forces with high-tech crime-stopping capabilities.

Busting crime rings

The thieves preyed on local mall stores and primarily stole clothing.
She said that a picker would select items to be stolen and stage them in a central location in the store. Another person would come along and stuff the merchandise into a shopping bag and leave the store. Often the bag would be handed off to a number of people to avoid detection.

For example, a gang of thieves would shoplift items from David Evans and other stores and return them for store gift cards, which then were sold on eBay.

“It was a sophisticated operation that was very premeditated and involved multiple players in multiple jurisdictions,”
Most retailers traditionally issue gift cards instead of cash for items returned without a receipt.

Walking a fine line

Deterrents used by retailers range from the simple to the sophisticated. Many retailers lock down high-end electronics, cosmetics and medical products in display cases or tether them to their racks.

Some retailers subscribe to a point-of-sale tracking service offered by Siras Inc. Siras keeps track of a product’s bar code and notes when and where it is sold. If a thief tries to return a product from another retailer or returns one that was never tagged as being sold, the system alerts the cashier that it is likely stolen. The system was invented at Nintendo to prevent used merchandise from being returned as new.

Richard Malburn, a former police investigator, helped test the product and said that the system also deters theft by employees.
“When employees realize the products are being tracked, they think twice about walking out the back door with them,” he said.

Target uses electronic “spider wraps,” which wrap around boxes of containing video players, televisions, gaming consoles and other often-stolen items. The wraps prevent boxes from being opened inside the store or taken outside.

The retailer and others also use anti-sweep hooks that prevent thieves from scooping up whole racks of products and bolting. There are locking racks that require an attendant to open and special hangers that prevent thieves from cutting merchandise off a locking rack.

But retailers acknowledge that such security can be a turn-off to customers.
“We have to walk a fine line, we need to protect our merchandise and still be customer-friendly.”


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