Summer sees increase in shoplifting incidents

Posted: Monday, August 12, 2002

Unless a big-name celebrity is involved, such as the recent Winona Ryder case, shoplifting often goes on with little media attention.

Shoplifting is not a crime of violence, weapons are not involved and even the theft amounts are usually petty.

To the retailer, nonetheless, shoplifting is more than a nuisance.

"It's very much a problem," said Carrs Quality Center Manager Doug Jung, who said the Kenai store catches "two, three, four shoplifters a month."

Although the amount of shoplifting increases during summer months when youths are on summer vacation, Jung said it's not only juveniles doing the stealing.

"Sometimes they're juveniles, sometimes they're not," he said. "But there's definitely more shoplifting in the summer."

In a one-month period this summer, the Fred Meyer store in Soldotna reported eight shoplifting cases to Soldotna police, resulting in the arrests of eight juveniles and two adults. In two of the cases, the suspects managed to get away.

While Ryder was arrested for allegedly stealing nearly $6,000 worth of designer merchandise from a Saks Fifth Avenue Store in Beverly Hills in December, local shoplifting thefts tend to be on a much smaller scale.

One case involved four cosmetic items and three clothing items.

Another alleged shop-lifter took some underwear valued at $20.50. Another took one cosmetic item, one pair of socks and a box of hair color.

Yet another cut the security tag off a $99 fishing pole and simply attempted to walk out of the store with it.

"One of the reasons we have a large number of arrests is that we have a permanent security system in place in our stores," said Rob Boley, assistant vice president of public relations for Fred Meyer's western region division headquartered in Portland, speaking for the Soldotna Fred Meyer store.

"And unlike grocers and smaller stores, we are a full department store with thousands of visitors a day. Therefore, we have a greater potential for shoplifting instances and arrests," he said.

The two adults arrested in two separate incidents at Fred Meyer this summer were both remanded to Wildwood Pretrial Facility, and the eight youths caught at the store were referred to Juvenile Intake.

"In Alaska, the actual crime is theft by concealment, and the amount determines whether it's a misdemeanor or a felony," said Assistant District Attorney Scott Leaders.

"If it's less than $50, it's a class B misdemeanor; if it's between $50 and $500, it's a class A misdemeanor; and it's a class C felony if it's $500 or above."

Prior criminal history can also affect the level at which the offense is prosecuted, Leaders said. A defendant with two prior theft convictions within the last five years can be prosecuted as a felon.

Leaders said the maximum penalties for the various levels of theft are up to $1,000 fine and up to 90 days in jail for a class B misdemeanor; up to $5,000 and one year for a class A misdemeanor; and up to $50,000 and five years in jail for a class C felony.

He said juveniles are referred to Juvenile Intake on the Kenai Peninsula and handled through the juvenile justice system.

Two juveniles recently apprehended at the Safeway grocery store in Soldotna for attempting to shoplift avoided that system. The matter was resolved between the store and the youths' parents, according to the police report.

"We try to prosecute where we can," said Mick Galic, manager of Safeway. "With kids, though, we don't want to harm them.

"We deal with it case by case and if they don't have a bad attitude, we try to work things out with them and their parents."

Galic's store uses security cameras, which allow store personnel to observe shoppers anywhere in the store, and employs a security staff to help curb shoplifting.

"It would be misleading to say it isn't a problem," Galic said. "Is it rampant? It's a problem."

None of the stores contacted would discuss actual dollar amounts in losses.

The owner of a Soldotna gift shop where an alleged shoplifter was caught recently, said reporting that large amounts are taken could send a signal to other thieves that a particular store "is an easy target."

Soldotna police apprehended a 47-year-old Soldotna woman who allegedly walked out of Donna's Country and Victorian Gifts with two large bowls of crystal potpourri.

"A lot of it happens right in front of us," said store owner Donna Schwanke. "It's as if it's a challenge to them."

Small businesses are not immune to shoplifters, Schwanke points out.

"It's a problem for everybody. I know we have a problem," she said. "I don't feel that we lose a lot, though, because we have hidden cameras."

Small and large businesses use a variety of methods to deter and detect shoplifters, and policies for dealing with those apprehended vary from store to store as well.

When a shoplifter is caught at Safeway, the store policy prohibits employees from getting overly physical in restraining a suspect.

"We escort them to the office to wait for police," Galic said.

Kmart spokesperson Susan Dennis said, "We have a policy that permits store security to use holding force to keep an individual detained until local authorities arrive.

"Our first concern is the safety of our shoppers and our sales associates."

Like the Safeway store, Kmart uses security cameras and security personnel to deter shoplifters and employs electronic tags on merchandise to sound alarms if not deactivated prior to leaving the store.

Carrs also trains its sales people to approach suspicious-looking customers and offer to help them, which often works because the would-be thief does not want the attention.

Whether stores use cameras, personnel, electronic merchandise tags or other methods to deter shoplifters, the goal is to not allow merchandise to leave the store without payment.

"With kids, we don't really want to punish them," Galic said. "But, we can't afford to let them just walk off with stuff."

"With repeat offenders, there's no question. We prosecute."

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