Partners in prevention

This article was published in the January 2017 issue of STORES Magazine.

Retailers focus on problem-solving techniques to keep shoppers and assets safe

Wishes for happy holidays and a prosperous New Year are still ringing in retailers’ ears. Unfortunately for the retail industry, the season was also a prosperous one for “thieves, scam artists and miscreants,” says Kenneth Kleinlein, a Florida-based crime prevention specialist.

Thieves’ modus operandi has not changed dramatically over the years, says Kleinlein, a former detective in New York City who worked special frauds, coordinating with local, state and federal law enforcement agencies as well as accredited security companies. “What was successful in the past is being used today,” he says.

Law enforcement and retailers work closely throughout the year in such areas as shoplifting, fraudulent payment card use, merchandise return scams and organized retail crime. But during the heavy shopping period between Thanksgiving and Christmas, retailers and law enforcement focus on cautioning shoppers not to become crime victims.

It is a time when shoppers are distracted by gift buying and the jolly mood of the season. The fact that so many more consumers are out shopping provides criminals with more potential targets.

“Both are legitimate reasons” for crime spiking during the holiday season, Kleinlein says. “The crooks are aware of where the cash is — it is with the shoppers whose thoughts are mainly on their shopping. Crooks aren’t stupid.”

Police departments encourage retailers to post signs warning customers about pickpocketing, purse snatching, scamming and similar activities that can occur inside or outside of the store and in parking areas.

“When and where such signs have been displayed, crime statistics are dramatically reduced,” Kleinlein says. “However, some merchants refuse to do so for fear of frightening away customers.”

 

Community partnerships

The U.S. Department of Justice has an agency that provides information to local law enforcement on resources available to combat crimes that tend to rise during the holiday season. DOJ’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services encourages police departments to promote community policing efforts and “forge community partnerships” to focus on “problem-solving techniques that law enforcement, communities, shoppers and retail businesses can take to help prevent becoming a victim of crime.”

In Green Bay, Wis., this took the form of a holiday safety and theft prevention summit involving retailers like Walgreens, Kohl’s and Festival Foods as well as smaller merchants, shopping center operators and law enforcement.

Police Chief Andrew Smith says eliminating retail theft would reduce crime in Green Bay by 22 percent.

“We invited retail managers and retail loss prevention officers to get together to talk about what we could do as a city and a group” to reduce holiday crime as much as possible, says Green Bay Police Chief Andrew Smith. He says that eliminating retail theft would reduce crime in Green Bay by 22 percent.

In Monroe, La., the local police department deployed its “sky tower” in shopping center parking areas. The 25-foot-tall structure provides officers with a 360-degree view and is equipped with cameras and spotlights. That was supplemented by officers in patrol cars, on Segways and both uniformed and plainclothes officers on foot inside and outside of stores.

Carlos Limontes, general manager of Pecanland Mall, says the shopping center has a long partnership with the Monroe Police Department. “As everyone understands, safety and the security of our customers is our top priority.”

Holiday patrols by police have increased over the last decade in El Dorado, Ark.; Capt. Kevin Holt says the El Dorado Police Department uses a combination of uniformed officers on foot patrol, motorized patrols and plainclothes officers at shopping centers and in city shopping districts.

“We increased enforcement around the shopping areas downtown and any stores that were open late,” Holt says, adding that the efforts covered small retailers scattered throughout the city. “We want to provide the same security there as we do for the big stores.”

Assisting shoppers

When it comes to criminal activity outside stores, law enforcement agencies typically encourage retailers to assist shoppers with such things as carrying bulky items and multiple packages to their cars, as well as ask shoppers to put packages in the trunk of the car if they intend to do more shopping, alert store security to be aware of loiterers outside the store and to step up parking area patrols during heavy shopping periods.

The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department reminds shoppers not to overload themselves with packages and bags, noting that “clear visibility and freedom of movement are important self-protection habits.”

“Make eye contact, say ‘hello’ to strangers, walk with a purpose or walk with someone else, which greatly reduces the chance of becoming a robber’s victim.”

Jesus Gloria
Milwaukee Police Department

A variation on cautious package-carrying, says Officer Jesus Gloria of the Milwaukee Police Department, is to remind people not to walk with their heads down. “Make eye contact, say ‘hello’ to strangers, walk with a purpose or walk with someone else, which greatly reduces the chance of becoming a robber’s victim,” Gloria says.

The Richmond County Sheriff’s Office in Augusta, Ga., says it develops plans with retailers each year to ensure that major shopping areas are as safe and secure as possible. In addition, Lt. Allan Rollins of the sheriff’s department says that shoppers are asked to do their part so they aren’t victimized during the “happiest time of the year.”

Denville, N.J., is home to two major shopping centers and a number of smaller shopping districts. “Take a crowded store,” says Capt. Paul Nigro of the Denville Police Department. “There is a big, long line. Someone is trying to pay and there is a rush, a lot of distractions. That’s when people will grab a wallet out of a pocketbook or a credit card from the counter.”

Covering contingencies

One crime prevention suggestion that is often overlooked, Kleinlein says, is reminding consumers not to shop until they drop.

“Criminals set upon shoppers when they are thinking about what gifts they still have to buy,” he says. “When people are tired mentally and physically, they are not at their best.”

Another scam that Kleinlein says often occurs when stores are crowded is the “phony employee” ruse. A person “dressed in the type of clothes a store employee would wear in order to present a believable persona” approaches a shopper near the exit or just outside the store, he says. The faux employee offers a huge discount on merchandise in a cash-only deal, often explaining that they are under pressure to meet a sales quota. Once the consumer hands over the money, the “employee” disappears into the crowds of shoppers.

A variation on this rip-off is “rocks in a box,” Kleinlein says, where a phony employee offers a shopper a boxed television or other big-ticket item in what appears to be a factory-sealed box.

All the holiday season preparations and planning with law enforcement agencies can’t cover all contingencies. Consumer enthusiasm for shopping and snapping up bargains can sometimes get out of control, as happened during the Black Friday launch of the recent holiday period. Major chain stores in New Jersey and Nevada, and a mall in Memphis, Tenn., were sites of violent crimes that left three dead and others injured in a series of shootings and stabbings that were only a part of the day’s major crime toll.

“Crooks go where the crowds are because that’s where the money is,” Kleinlein says. Some criminals “will not hesitate to use violence to acquire the cash they need, particularly if they are drug addicts.” But, he quickly adds, “Some of the violence results from disputes between shoppers.”