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CURRENT STORIES


Theft costs everyone

by Nora Edinger

REGIONAL EDITOR

CLARKSBURG -- Christmas shoppers whose presents leave the store under a baggy coat instead of a shopping bag may be saving a lot of money. No one else is.

Area retailers say shoplifting adds to the price of every item they stock.

"The consumer is who pays in the end," said one manager of an area department store. He was not able to use his name because of a company policy. "Instead of a blouse costing $9.99, it's priced at $14.99."

Area police and prosecutors say law-abiding citizens also are picking up the tab every time authorities are called in to deal with this particular kind of thief.

Some area police departments are staffing almost daily calls to local stores -- an investment of about an hour a pop. Joe Shaffer, Harrison County prosecutor, said court costs are such that the theft of even a $5 item can snowball into a $5,000 bill for taxpayers.

Big-ticket issue

"It's escalating by leaps and bounds," the anonymous store manager said of what a University of Florida study estimates is now a $10 billion annual dint into national retail revenue. "I'm sure we're getting hit every day. We don't catch them every day."

"Drugs," he said as to why he believes the crime is on the rise.

He said about 80 percent of the shoplifting cases his store encounters now involve individuals who are stealing to sell merchandise to purchase drugs or to trade it for illegal substances.

Chief Jack Clayton of the Bridgeport Police Department agreed most local shoplifting cases that department sees are drug related. He said smaller numbers of cases involve either compulsive thievery or professional shoplifting, in which an individual is stealing to fill "customer" orders.

The anonymous manager said the drug-spurred shoplifters are even more troublesome for store security. Because so many of the thieves need a fix, he said they are doing outrageous things like trying to walk out the door carrying large items they don't even bother to conceal.

"These people are brash," the manager said. "They're so desperate, they'll do anything."

Sandy Wells, store manager of Pet Supplies Plus in New Pointe Plaza, knows all about brash. While that particular store winks at inventory loss from canine customers who like to "taste test," she has worked at other stores in the chain where thefts of small pets like rabbits or ferrets were a problem.

At the Clarksburg store, she insists that an employee remain with any customer who is handling an uncaged pet, as a result. That means that staffer is unavailable to do other things, like ring up a sale or stock shelves.

Add it all up and she said the chain factors shoplifting right into its prices to compensate.

Staff time is also a factor at Claire's, an accessory store at Meadowbrook Mall in Bridgeport. Manager Lucy Herrod said staff are watching carefully, particularly when the store is filled with holiday shoppers.

"If definitely costs," she said of across-the-board markups that chain also uses.

Dave Reed, owner of downtown Bridgeport's Hobby Stop, said even his kind of retail store has to think about shoplifting.

He keeps smaller, pricier items -- like the model railroad engines that run $60-$200 -- under glass. Many other items are on walls behind the case.

"Our register's right at the front door and that helps a lot," Reed said of another tactic. "It takes a little bit of extra doing to walk out with anything."

Criminal costs

Law enforcement sources say shoplifting costs big from the moment store security calls them in.

Chief John Walker of the Clarksburg Police Department said it takes at least 45 minutes to process that kind of call -- which can either lead to a ticket-like citation or an arrest.

"That's, of course, taking an officer off the street when we're already short staffed," Walker said.

The time costs are compounded if the case goes to court, he noted. Officers have to take time away from normal duties to appear as witnesses. And, if the officer is not scheduled to work on that day, the city must pay overtime.

Prosecutor Shaffer said costs are also an issue inside the court itself.

He said expenses often include issuing subpoenas for videotapes from store security cameras, prosecutors' time, judges' time and, often, public defenders' time. Add those expenses to store costs and other witnesses' time, which often involves missing work, and that is where he came up with the estimate that even a $5 theft can mushroom into $5,000.

Acknowledging such costs, he believes it is important for police and prosecutors to work closely together to fight this crime.

"We're working with the police to attempt to have their people charge as high as we can to serve as a deterrent," he said, explaining that certain charges can carry stiffer penalties than others.

For example, if a police officer issues a "shoplifting" citation instead of making an arrest-related charge, a convicted individual may pay less than $250 in fines and see no jail time. Plus, the citations are issued on a city-by-city basis. That means habitual shoplifters can rack up multiple "first offense" charges -- which carry lesser penalties -- simply by moving their operation around.

Petit larceny, however, is a stiffer charge that can be leveled for thefts of under $1,000 of merchandise. If convicted of that misdemeanor, an individual can face a fine of up to $2,500 and up to a year in jail -- on a first offense. Subsequent convictions for the same offense can lead to prison time.

If more than $1,000 or merchandise is stolen, Shaffer noted an individual can be charged with grand larceny, a felony.

Regional editor Nora Edinger can be reached at 626-1447 or by e-mail at nedinger@exponent-telegram.com