Light Fingers

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Thieves within and without

As the Christmas shopping season reaches a climax this week, retailers will be totting up more than sales. Gone from their shelves will also be millions of dollars' worth of goods that no one paid for. The total amount of shoplifting this year could go as high as $8 billion. Says Gary Rejebian, spokesman for the Illinois Retail Merchants Association: "Shoplifting causes the greatest losses for a retailer."

Stores are paying more attention than ever to light-fingered crime. Spending for antitheft devices has gone up about 18% in the past year. The most popular anti-crime item is a plastic tag about the size of a pocket comb that stores are putting on everything from dresses to fur coats. The tags, which can be conveniently removed only by a special tool, set off an alarm when they pass through a sensing device that is usually located at exits. Criminals frequently try to cover up the tags with aluminum foil to fool the detection machines, or even bite off the devices. Sensormatic of Boca Raton, Fla., has some 200 million tags in 40,000 detection systems in stores around the world. Shops originally hid the tags inside each piece of merchandise, but the devices were so successful that too many criminals were being caught. Retailers now generally pin them on the outside of garments so that they will just deter would-be thieves.

Remote cameras, which have been in use for more than a decade, remain a successful piece of equipment for catching thieves. At Marshall Field's in Chicago a guard monitors a bank of 39 closed-circuit television screens watching for shoplifters. He is also in radio contact with guards on the floor so that a thief can be caught before slipping out of the store.

The best defense against shoplifters, though, is still alert employees. Says Albert Zarets, president of A-Z Investigative Services of New York City: "Most shoplifters won't risk entanglement with a store detective." Merchants say when word gets out that a store is tough on shoplifters, thefts drop off.

Police and retailers are getting to know more and more about shoplifting and shoplifters. The biggest group of criminals, say the experts, are store employees, especially temporary Christmas salespeople who have little or no loyalty to their employer. A new study by Arthur Young & Co., a major accounting firm, shows that employees account for 44% of store thefts, while 30% is done by outside shoplifters. The urge to steal from stores cuts across class lines, seducing almost everyone from bored housewives to lawyers. The typical offender is the run-of-the-aisle customer who steals one or two items. Says Sensormatic President Ronald Assaf: "They're the ones who cause the real problems." Teen-agers and members of minority groups do their share of filching too, but not as much as had been thought. Says Assaf: "Not many teens shop in places where they could lift a $125 scarf."

Professional shoplifters, who are a major factor, usually work in teams. One person distracts the clerk and watches for store detectives, while the other pockets the booty. Professionals frequently steal targeted items and then sell them to people who have ordered them. A favorite is jewelry. Some professionals have been caught with detailed maps of a city's shopping areas, showing stores and the best times to make a hit.

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