Organized Shoplifting Spurs High-Tech Security Measures

By Allan Stein
Allan Stein
Allan Stein
Allan Stein is a national reporter for The Epoch Times based in Arizona.
February 21, 2022Updated: February 22, 2022

Spurred in part by inflation and supply chain disruptions during the pandemic, the increasing volume of retail shoplifting since 2019 has prompted stores across the country to adopt stronger methods to deter shoplifters.

One measure involved the use of “spider wire” with an electronic security tag on a $20.83 package of ribeye steak at a Walmart in Florida, as shown in a TikTok video that has since gone viral.

The user who posted the 25-second video clip lamented: “You got to be kidding me. Walmart now has its steak locked up. … It’s come down to this.”

Walmart refused to comment on the video or whether the practice of using security wire on beef is localized or nationwide.

Still, it appears Walmart is trying to “make it difficult for the bad guys to steal,” observed loss prevention expert Bill Alford, co-founder and CEO of Circle The Wagons Group Purchasing Organization in North Carolina, a retail risk management organization.

But don’t assume it’s just desperate people in desperate times who are committing most grocery store thefts, Alford said. Rather, it reflects a much larger problem of organized retail crime, in which groups of shoplifters work in tandem to steal high-priced merchandise for resale on the local black market.

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A T-Mobile store that was victim to a smash-and-grab robbery sits open for business in Fountain Valley, Calif., on Jan. 27, 2022. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

According to the FBI, organized retail crime costs U.S. retailers about $30 billion a year. Often, these crimes are a gateway for major crime rings that use illicit proceeds to fund other crimes, such as money laundering.

“The stores targeted for theft run the gamut—from grocery and major department stores to drug stores and specialty shops. The organizations responsible for much of this crime include South American theft groups, Mexican criminal groups, Cuban criminal groups from South Florida, and Asian street gangs from California,” the FBI said in a statement.

U.S. consumers ultimately pay through higher prices as retail stores grapple with mounting losses of revenue and goods.

“There is also a health and safety aspect—in many cases, stolen food products, pharmaceuticals, and other consumables aren’t maintained under proper conditions or labeled properly, so when they do finally make their way back to unsuspecting consumers, they may be ineffective or may even make people sick,” the FBI stated.

A May 2021 survey of annual retail theft in the United States found that while temporary store closures due to COVID-19 resulted in fewer thieves caught stealing in 2020, average shoplifting cases have increased 13 percent since 2019.

“As expected, the COVID-19 pandemic clearly affected apprehensions and recovery dollars in 2020, with shoplifting apprehensions and recovered dollars down 43.8 percent and 36.5 percent respectively, and dishonest employee apprehensions and recovery dollars [are] down 20.3 percent and 17.2 percent respectively,” Mark Doyle, president of Jack L. Hayes International, which conducted the survey, said in a statement.

The survey incorporated responses from 22 large retailers, which recovered more than $81 million from thieves and saw overall apprehensions rise nearly 8 percent, along with a 9.1 percent increase in dollar recoveries during 2020, Doyle added.

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The Home Depot in Flagstaff, Ariz., currently uses electronic security devices on many higher-end products, such as this DeWalt power drill, on Feb. 19, 2022. (Allan Stein/The Epoch Times)

“Thefts really impact your bottom line,” said Alford, who sees retail stores relying more on technology to deter shoplifters—anything that “makes it more difficult for the bad guys” to steal.

Alford said organized retail criminals tend to focus on more popular, and pricey, merchandise to steal and fence locally. However, grocery items, such as beef, must be resold quickly, as it’s a “perishable item.”

“The vast majority of people who steal large volumes of product like that are not people who are down on their luck,” Alford told The Epoch Times. “The bad guys are daring the retailers to stop them.”

“Shoplifting tends to be a highly localized issue,” Jim Dudlicek, director of communications for the National Grocers Association, which serves more than 1,500 members, told The Epoch Times.

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Each year, an estimated 2 million shopping carts are stolen. Here, a shopping cart waits to be used at the Home Depot in Flagstaff, Ariz., on Feb. 19, 2022. (Allan Stein/The Epoch Times)

In 2020 alone, the National Retail Federation estimated $720,000 per $1 billion in sales was lost to organized retail crime.

In response, big-box retailers such as The Home Depot are looking at technology to stop shoplifting at the cash register and the parking lot using point of sale technology (POSA), including shopping carts with wheels that lock.

“POSA is powered by Bluetooth technology built into certain products with an on/off switch that must be activated at the register. If that doesn’t happen, the product won’t turn on, meaning it has no value until someone pays for it,” The Home Depot said in a statement.

“Retailers that try to stop theft in a meaningful way must find a balance between effective security and protecting the customer experience for honest shoppers,” said Scott Glenn, vice president of asset protection at The Home Depot. “It’s this challenge behind the innovative and creative approaches our team is taking.”

The Home Depot said POSA currently is being tested in stores around the country and that customers have experienced “smooth integration during transactions. Moving forward, The Home Depot plans to extend the POSA program to more stores and potentially more product categories.”

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The beef section at Walmart in Flagstaff, Ariz., on Feb. 17, 2022, appeared to be well-stocked and free of security devices. (Allan Stein/The Epoch Times)

Smith’s Food & Drug Stores and Fred Meyer Stores began using electric shopping cart containment systems to thwart shoplifting. The Food Marketing Institute reports that nearly 2 million shopping carts are stolen each year at a loss of $8,000 to $10,000 per store.

Due to the increase and brazenness in organized retail crime, many security products have been developed to stop shoplifters.

In Arizona, Mark Miller, president of the Arizona Food Marketing Alliance, which represents 1,200 grocery and convenience stores, said the organization has been closely watching organized retail theft rates after recent “smash-and-grab” incidents in California made the news.

Since California under Proposition 47 reduced the statutory offense for stealing merchandise worth $950 or less to a misdemeanor, shoplifting cases will likely increase, Miller told The Epoch Times.

“We always react in a way to protect businesses. It is something we are watching carefully. We’ve had a small amount of it.”

As thefts continue to increase nationwide, large retail stores are seeking out innovative technology to prevent theft. Even so, organized retail criminals somehow always learn to adapt, Miller said.

“That [technology] has helped to a degree, but criminals always seem to find a way.”

The Phoenix Police Department currently doesn’t keep separate statistics on food shoplifting incidents, said Police Sgt. Andy Williams of the Public Affairs Bureau.

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Cardboard boxes lay strewn across railroad tracks three miles from downtown Los Angeles on Jan. 14, 2022. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

“We cannot speculate how the economy or inflation will impact crime or more specifically theft,” Williams told The Epoch Times.

In Ohio, SACS Consulting & Investigative Services identifies on its website four methods shoplifters typically use at the checkout area.

One method is the “banana trick,” in which a shoplifter will try to pass off a higher-priced item, such as bananas, as lower priced.

The “pass-around”—moving an item around the payment device and then placing it in the bag undetected—is another ploy they use.

The “cover-up” technique, on the other hand, involves putting an unscanned item at the bottom of the cart. If caught, the shoplifter can always plead ignorance.

With the “switcheroo” method, the shoplifter will affix a lower-priced tag on a higher-priced item and then run the item through the scanner.

“We hope (grocery shoplifting) isn’t the norm yet,” Miller said. “In Arizona, in most cases, they’re still prosecuting theft.”

However, in states such as California, the long-term outlook appears to be more daunting given the milder consequences for shoplifting.

“It’s just something in California that they’ve got to get a handle on or it’s going to get worse. Hopefully, [in Arizona] it doesn’t get anywhere near what it is in California,” Miller said.