Monday, December 29, 2008

Shoplifting up as economy tanks

Having undertaken to identify criminal justice implications for the current economic downturn, I was interested to see this item from the New York Times about a surge in shoplifting ("As economy dips, arrests for shoplifting soar," Dec. 22):

Police departments across the country say that shoplifting arrests are 10 percent to 20 percent higher this year than last. The problem is probably even greater than arrest recordsindicate since shoplifters are often banned from stores rather than arrested.

Much of the increase has come from first-time offenders like Mr. Johnson making rash decisions in a pinch, the authorities say. But the ease with which stolen goods can be sold on the Internet has meant a bigger role for organized crime rings, which also engage in receipt fraud, fake price tagging and gift card schemes, the police and security experts say.

And as temptation has grown for potential thieves, so too has stores’ vulnerability.

“More people are desperate economically, retailers are operating with leaner staffs and police forces are cutting back or being told to deprioritize shoplifting calls,” said Paul Jones, the vice president of asset protection for the Retail Industry Leaders Association.

The problem, he said, could be particularly acute this December, “the month of the year when shoplifting always goes way up.”

Two of the largest retail associations say that more than 80 percent of their members are reporting sharp increases in shoplifting, according to surveys conducted in the last two months.

Compounding the problem, stores are more reluctant to stop suspicious customers because they fear scaring away much-needed business. And retailers are increasingly trying to save money by hiring seasonal workers who, security experts say, are themselves more likely to commit fraud or theft and are less practiced at catching shoplifters than full-time employees are.

That last paragraph in particular strikes me as an interesting twist; I hadn't thought about the use of temp workers increasing the risk of theft, which adds another layer of cost and complications to businesses forced to downsize. That cheaper, seasonal employee may not seem so cheap once they clear out the cash register on their way out.

These data are from retailers associations, not official crime statistics, so we'll have to wait at least a year to see if the increases bear out in the official numbers. Certainly, though, it makes sense that low-level crimes of opportunity might increase when so many more people are feeling the economic pinch.

Hat tip to CrimProf Blog.

RELATED: The Washington Post says that whether or not property crime is statistically increasing, anxiety about property crime is going up.

MORE: Jack Shafer at Slate calls this story the "Bogus Trend of the Week." It'll be interesting down the line to compare this period's official theft statistics with media hype about the economic crisis boosting property crime.


Anonymous said...

I saw this piece too Grits, the same day that I happened to witness a young guy getting cuffed and put in the car at a Target.


Robert Boyd said...

Slate calls bogus on this--specifically citing it as a bogus trend that newspapers occasionally get suckered into writing about. ( Telltale signs are sources of stats that are far from disinterested (like retail associations, in this case), vagueness about methodology in collecting and analyzing the stats, and weasel words like "many" and "may be". Oh, and of course, anecdotes. It seems reasonable to think that shoplifting may be on the rise, but neither of these articles convinces me that it actually is on the rise (or not).

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Thanks, Robert, I added the link as an addendum.