- The Washington Times - Monday, May 11, 2009

The “five-finger discount” has a hold on the nation.

Pizzas, art supplies, baby formula, diabetic test strips, fancy lingerie, perennial plants ripped from the ground - just about anything is up for grabs in a sour economy as more Americans resort to shoplifting. Some filchers have gone pro - snatching the goods in organized raids and later unloading their wares at innocent swap meets or flea markets.

In separate incidents last week, police in Michigan, Nebraska, New York and New Hampshire reported that young mothers were apprehended shoplifting with the help of their toddlers. In Joliet, Ill., managers of a lingerie store were shocked to discover Thursday that someone had walked out with 140 bras worth a total of $5,440.

It’s rampant: 61 percent of the largest retailers and chain stores report that “opportunistic” shoplifting has increased in the past four months, despite the fact that stores collectively shell out $12 billion a year in loss-prevention efforts, according to new research released last week by the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA).

None of the retailers - grocery, mass merchandise, apparel, electronic, crafts, appliance and specialty stores - reported that the shoplifting incidents have lessened.

More than half have been victimized by credit card or other financial fraud. In addition, three-fourths said they have seen a marked increase in “organized retail crime,” or ORC, the catchall term for grand-scale shoplifting.

“Sophisticated crime rings steal and stockpile stolen merchandise, eventually selling the stolen goods to buyers usually unaware of the item’s pathway to market. Stolen merchandise is sold through flea markets, swap meets, pawn shops and increasingly through Internet auction sites,” the RILA report said.

“Unlike simple shoplifting or other crimes of opportunity, ORC growth is less likely to decline on its own as the economy improves.”

The study warned that shoplifting funded serious crime, citing assassination attempts on federal prosecutors and police in Texas that were completely funded by more than $1 million in gang-related baby formula thefts from retailers.

The group showcased a specific incident. In March, federal and regional authorities shut down a central Florida shoplifting ring, arresting 21 suspects - all illegal immigrants - who were paid up to $300 a day to steal baby formula. The group stole $17.5 million worth of formula, according to the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, which had 40 detectives assigned to the case.

The allure of shoplifting has also tarnished a foreign student exchange program coordinated by Georgetown University and funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Three Latin American women on student visas at Rockland Community College in New York most likely will be deported after they were charged with shoplifting more than 100 pieces of clothing from retailers in several Long Island towns. They were expelled from the college as well.

“These three individuals are guests of our country,” Clarkstown Judge Howard Gerber said. “They are being paid for by our country to be here, and the way that they reward our country is to go in and steal something.”

The stealing is widespread, according to some sources. One in every 11 people shoplifts - making off with $35 million a day from retailers, at least according to the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention, a nonprofit group in New York.

Statistics reveal that while the number of serious crimes is falling across the nation, thievery is up. Preliminary numbers from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports for the first half of 2008 show that larceny, theft and burglary are the only crimes on the rise in metropolitan areas.

Regional and local numbers are more telling, however. Shoplifting is up by 27 percent in the Great Lakes area, according to numbers released last month by police in Michigan. Shoplifting rose by 24 percent in Palo Alto, Calif., say local police, and by 30 percent in Tennessee, according to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

Three bipartisan bills are before Congress to curb shoplifting, including the Combating Organized Retail Crime Act of 2009, introduced by Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat. Meanwhile, 35 states have enacted or introduced legislation to curb organized retail theft, primarily by increasing funding to law enforcement and by making the crime a Class 4 felony rather than a misdemeanor.

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