Recession blamed for shoplifting increase
Store security, law enforcement seek to thwart emboldened thieves
SOUTH PORTLAND — Behind an inconspicuous door at Sears in the Maine Mall, in a dim inner sanctum beyond a room reserved for apprehended shoplifters, loss prevention manager Charles LaRou focused intently on one of several glowing video monitors.
He used a sophisticated joy stick to maneuver his way around corners and through a maze of shelves and racks as he followed two potential shoplifters as they strolled through the lingerie department.
Without a glance at the tag, one of the women handed her friend a teddie on a hanger and then several others in rapid succession. With her coat draped casually over her arm, the friend took the hangers, quickly put some back and snatched others off the rack in what had become a wearable shell game.
"She's now beginning to show behaviors we see in shoplifters," LaRou said as he zoomed in on the woman and wrote down the numbers and types of items she held.
When LaRou and his crew look for shoplifters, they look for certain behaviors – visual cues that shoppers don't ordinarily exhibit.
"Shoppers pick up an item and look at the size and the price and feel it or touch it," he said. "Thieves don't do that; sometimes they don't even care about size."
Shoplifters may also show signs of nervousness – glancing up at security cameras and looking around them to see if anyone is nearby. And often, they pick up multiples of the same item.
"It's a surprise for a lot of people how much we can see," he said.
After a career as captain at the Cumberland County Jail, LaRou came to Sears 10 years ago to head the store's efforts to minimize shoplifting. He said the store uses the same technology as casinos – a $175,000 high-quality surveillance system that includes 80 cameras.
"We prosecute everybody," he said. "Sears hasn't lost a case in court."
Last year, his team caught 100 shoplifters. But this year, he said he has seen a significant increase that he attributes to drug addiction. "Most people say they have some type of drug dependency," LaRou said. "Sometimes they actually have drug paraphernalia."
This year, in addition an increase in the number of shoplifters, LaRou has seen a change in their approach and their target items.
"People we're dealing with are more aggressive; we haven't found them violent, but other (stores) have," he said. "They're looking for higher priced items and taking greater risks."
Recently, after scoping out the back of a big-screen TV (a common first step for those who shoplift electronics), one man left the area and headed to the tools department, where he grabbed a pair of wire cutters. He then returned to the TV, clipped the security cable that tethered it to the shelf and walked it out of the store.
The instance is one of a pattern of snatch-and-run electronics thefts in area stores that have local law enforcement on alert.
"We had the same group of people shoplifting ... putting TVs on carts and wheeling them out fire doors," Scarborough Police Sergeant Rick Rouse said.
And police think the same group may be tied to a group that has stolen purses from several unsuspecting shoppers at Wal-Mart in Falmouth.
"Wal-Mart seems to be quite the target for exiting with TVs and computers or grabbing purses and using the credit cards to purchase electronics elsewhere," Falmouth Police Lt. John Kilbride said.
In several cases, Kilbride said, a group has targeted elderly women. After watching a woman as she shopped to determine if she would leave her purse in her cart, one of the group would approach her and ask for directions while another would snatch her pocketbook. In each case, the thieves would head to the Maine Mall area and use the stolen credit cards to purchase thousands of dollars worth of electronics at Sears and Best Buy.
"These individuals are desperate and what they want outweighs the risk – it circles around drugs," Kilbride said.
Falmouth's detectives keep tabs of items on eBay and Craigslist – both popular outlets for stolen goods, he said. But often, the items are traded directly for drugs, making them more difficult to trace, LaRou said.
LaRou said he's seen it all during his time in loss prevention – the woman who burst into tears in an attempt to convince him her baby had died as she tried to return the baby clothes she had just stolen; the man who re-entered Sears to steal a second digital camera while his girlfriend was trying to return the one he had stolen just moments before; and the two young teens whose parents left the area after instructing them to put their baby sibling in a stroller and wheel it out of the store.
As LaRou continued to watch the women in the lingerie department, one of them slipped the spaghetti-strap halter top teddie over her head and looked down at her torso, trying to see how it would look. After a few moments, she pulled it off, hung it and the other hangers back on the rack and left the department.
LaRou shook his head and turned his attention back to the electronics department.