Deck the halls with mobs of shoplifters

Shoplifting and thefts by employees are rising in spite of anti-shoplifting campaigns and technology that has turned some stores into electronic fortresses.

“This is a serious problem,” said Mark Doyle, president of Jack L. Hayes International, a Fruitland Park, Fla., firm that compiles annual shoplifting statistics for the retail industry. “The losses are staggering.”

The latest surveys, based on figures gathered from 27 large retailers with 12,908 stores, estimate that stores lost more than $4.7 billion to shoplifting and employee theft in 2004. More than 750,000 shoplifters and dishonest employees were caught that year.

Thieves working in gangs are hitting stores increasingly, Doyle said. “We’ve got South American gangs that are sophisticated and know what they are doing,” he said.

He said the gangs operate in teams including scouts that locate high-value items in a store. Gang members pose as shoppers and divert the attention of store clerks while others make off with the goods. The average loss from shoplifting is about $150.

Doyle said theft by store employees averages more than $600 and also appears to be increasing. Following a three-year decline, the number of employees charged with theft increased last year to more than 63,000.

“This is still the biggest problem out there,” he said. “Here you have people who know the systems and know the controls and wait until the opportune time.”

Although there is an increase in shoplifting cases in the Christmas shopping season, Doyle said it’s not as great an increase as many think. He said many shoplifters prefer stores when they aren’t so crowded, and store employees aren’t as watchful as they are during the intense shopping season.

Doyle said the retail industry is trying to persuade the courts to treat shoplifting offenses more seriously and is lobbying Congress to strengthen laws to discourage gangs from operating between states.

Psychologist Will Cupchik, who specializes in treating from 50 to 100 shoplifters a year at his Toronto clinic, said he’s seen policemen, the clergy and those from other respected professions walk through his door over the last 30 years.

He believes most shoplifters are not typical criminals but normal people driven to bizarre behavior by work or personal stress whose careers have crumbled as a result.

“I have a higher percentage of doctors and nurses than any other profession, and these are often respected doctors and nurses,” he said. “Firefighters and police officers are there, too. These are people who deal with dying and death and losses all of the time and the price they are paying for this is psychological,” he said.

Cupchik said some people affected by stress respond by going on shopping binges or overeating, while others turn to alcohol or obsess with bodybuilding. A percentage of the population will take it out in anti-social behavior like shoplifting, he said.

Although his patients often have a history of shoplifting, and many have been arrested several times, Cupchik said he’s convinced that few are serious kleptomaniacs. Rather, he said most shoplifters are driven to the crime by anger at uncertain economic conditions, pressure at work or an inability to properly process bad experiences.

He recalled one patient who responded to being told he had to work Christmas day by walking into a nearby Radio Shack store and walking out with a VCR in its box without paying. He said the man engaged in previous shoplifting, each time of which he could link in therapy sessions to some way he felt unfairly treated at work.

Cupchik said it doesn’t have to be events affecting just the shoplifter, but episodes can also be triggered by mass events caused by economic dislocation or perceptions that the government is acting unfairly.

“When there was a sense of unfair loss happening after 9/11, there was to some extent an increase in shoplifting,” he said.

(Contact Lance Gay at GayL(at)