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As economy declines, shoplifting increases — even in thrift shops

Chuck Biedka
| Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Even the Salvation Army thrift stores aren't safe from shoplifters any more.

Thrift stores, by design, help lower income people, but serve as bargain stores for others — including thieves.

Professional shoplifters usually hit larger stores with designer wares, but some shoplifters are turning to second-hand stores to purloin items, analysts say.

Last week, two Kittanning women — Laura S. Ainsworth, 27, and Sherry L. Wack, 25 — were charged with retail theft and related charges for allegedly stealing clothing from the Kiski Valley Salvation Army store, according to Kiski Township police.

Salvation Army staff have reported similar thefts in recent weeks.

"If the women need help, they could have asked for financial assistance through the Salvation Army's voucher program," said store manager Sandy McCourt.

She said the store had some surveillance tools in place before this month's incident because there was a need.

University of Florida criminologist Richard Hollinger said thrift stores using surveillance cameras is a sad reflection of the times.

This week, Hollinger is scheduled to present an annual shoplifting report to a national retailers' group. An expert in the field, Hollinger has prepared a national shoplifting analysis for nearly 20 years.

Hollinger said shoplifting is on the rise, as are employee theft and related crime.

Salvation Army regional officials won't talk directly about the Kiski Valley case but said shoplifting is a reality they experience.

"We're just like any other retailers," said Martina O'Leary, who supervises Pittsburgh regional stores. "It's not rampant, but it happens."

Yet, as the economy continues to adjust, more and more people are shopping in thrift or secondhand stores, she said.

Shoplifters are having an impact on Goodwill Industries, too.

"I wouldn't call it a growing problem. But it's one of the unfortunate consequences of our business," said David Tobicheck, spokesman for Goodwill Industries of Pittsburgh.

The nonprofit operates about 20 thrift stores in the region, including one in Cheswick.

The shoplifting incidents may not be many, but they create problems, he said.

"They are taking money away from our mission to help people," Tobicheck said.

Not all Pittsburgh-area thrifts are being hit, said Fred Just, executive director for the Pittsburgh-area Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

"We're not having shoplifting," Just said. "Maybe it's because people know we're church-related. But so is the Salvation Army. It's strange."

The 2008 National Retail Security Survey said retailers lost about $34.3 billion to shoplifting.

Hollinger said the current increase might be attributable to the recession.

Loss numbers weren't immediately available for the Salvation Army in the nation or the Pittsburgh region.

However, some limited statistics are available.

New Kensington police investigated 23 retail thefts in 2007. That jumped to 41 in 2008.

So far this year, there have been 18 retail thefts, police said.

The two state police troops serving the Alle-Kiski Valley reported 300 retail thefts from Jan. 1 to June 9, 2008.

There were only 268 such thefts reported for Jan. 1 to June 9, 2009.

A trooper said the difference might be explained because more businesses are filing their own charges and, sometimes, multiple incidents appear under one case number rather than separately.

Shoplifting referrals

"It's ironic that there was shoplifting in a Salvation Army store. Why would people feel the need to steal there?" asked Barbara Staib, spokeswoman for the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention at Jericho, N.Y.

The association reports a 26 percent increase in court-ordered referrals for its anti-shoplifting classes from 2006 to 2008.

Thus far this year, the referrals numbers are up 8 percent to 10 percent, she said.

The ailing economy might be a reason, Staib said, or the numbers could reflect the added effort to fighting shoplifting.

The Arlington, Va.-based Retail Industry Leaders Association sees an indirect link between more shoplifting and changes in the economy.

"There is a link, but there is also a misconception about why and how they are tied," said Casey Chroust, the association's vice president.

"Most people think that in rough economic times people steal to put food on the table and provide for their family. That's not the case.

"People are stealing DVDs, trendy clothes and similar things," Chroust said. "These are not items to better their family situation. We view it as stealing some items to save money to spend on other items."

According to the association, in first four months of this year 60 percent of their retailers experienced an increase in "amateur /opportunistic shoplifting."

Also, more than 70 percent of the companies saw an increase in organized retail crime.

Still, he thinks the upward trend can reverse.

"As the economy turns around, hopefully the shoplifting numbers will reflect that," he said.

Additional Information:

Shoplifting facts

• More than $35 million worth of goods is stolen from retailers each day.

• There are an estimated 27 million shoplifters in the United States.

• About 25 percent of all shoplifters are juveniles. Of the 75 percent who are adults, about half started while they were juveniles.

• About 3 percent of shoplifters steal for a living. They are thought to take 10 percent of all stolen goods.

• About 57 percent of the adults and 33 percent of the juveniles caught say they find it hard to stop.

Source: National Association of National Association for Shoplifting Prevention

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