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Tough economy boosts shoplifting

This year's hurting economy is taking a toll on retailers in more ways than one: Not only are people spending less, they're stealing more.

This year's hurting economy is taking a toll on retailers in more ways than one: Not only are people spending less, they're stealing more.

Around the country, shoplifting is up - and authorities say cash-strapped novices are helping to drive up arrests.

"We always see an increase [in shoplifting] around the holidays, but this entire year has been much busier," said Lt. Bill Kushina, of the Cherry Hill Township police. "People are just taking whatever they can."

Between Cherry Hill Mall and the township's numerous other shopping plazas and big-box stores, Cherry Hill police average 300 to 370 shoplifting arrests a year, Kushina said. In 2007, officers made 361 arrests for retail theft.

This year, the tally was 658 as of Dec. 14, an unprecedented increase that Kushina said he believed was related to hard times.

Police in other New Jersey and Pennsylvania towns report a similar increase. Besides professional thieves, authorities say, they are catching more offenders with no shoplifting record.

"It's sad to see," said Lt. George Johnson of the Deptford Police Department. "It seems like a lot of these are almost impulse decisions, and it's surprising that some of these people would take the risk."

Amateur, first-time shoplifting has climbed at a record pace nationwide, according to the Retail Industry Leaders Association, a Northern Virginia group that represents major retailers, manufacturers and suppliers.

In a recent association survey of 52 of the country's largest retailers, 84 percent reported an increase in amateur shoplifting this year.

"The customer who would not ordinarily be a shoplifter is making bad decisions," said Paul Jones, the group's vice president of asset protection. "It's disturbing."

Health and beauty products are frequently stolen, Jones said. While pros go store to store, pilfering large quantities, a growing number of shoplifters are being apprehended for taking a single bottle of medicine or pack of razor blades.

"We're seeing people who are trying to cut corners, so they're stealing things they would normally buy," he said.

The economy may also be responsible for a rise in other property thefts, say local police. In Camden, robberies have increased about 5 percent this year. In Philadelphia, burglaries are up 15 percent, officials said.

Though violent crime in Philadelphia is down in 2008, those involving theft have risen, said Lt. Frank Vanore, of the city police. As of mid-December, there had been about 4,300 arrests for retail theft this year, up from 4,090 in all of 2007.

"It's not showing any signs of slowing down," Vanore said. "Even with the violent crimes down, our total crime numbers are about the same as last year" because of thefts.

Some areas with a heavy retail concentration have not experienced the same upsurge in crimes. Police in Upper Merion Township, whose jurisdiction includes the King of Prussia mall, had less than a 10 percent increase in shoplifting arrests last month compared with October, said Lt. James Early, of the Upper Merion Police Department.

Even with the holidays, arrests have remained level this month. There has not been a noticeable jump in first-time arrests, either, he said.

"We have a lot of officers in the mall at this time of the year doing foot patrols," Early said. "I'd like to attribute it to that, to the extra security precautions we take."

Most malls have a similar police presence. Deptford Mall contains a small police substation, and Cherry Hill Mall is patrolled more often during the holiday season. Officers also monitor large stores such as Wal-Mart, which have increasingly become targets for shoplifters.

Big-box stores are especially popular with organized retail-theft rings, whose members steal to order for middlemen who sell the items online or at flea markets.

In Camden, authorities last month busted a large ring that operated out of six city bodegas. The organization employed drug addicts who could be counted on to provide a steady stream of goods from stores including Target, Wal-Mart and Rite-Aid. Authorities said they believed they might have stolen merchandise worth millions of dollars over at least five years, most of it health and beauty items such as face lotion, teeth-whitening strips, and baby formula.

The rise in organized retail theft has led some states, including New Jersey, to enact laws that can send leaders of the operations to prison for five to 10 years. But shoplifters usually are given fines or other relatively light penalties that soon allow them to resume stealing.

"It's hard to stop it," said Vanore, of Philadelphia. "Many times, people who are involved in this just keep doing it again and again."

More than $35 million worth of merchandise is stolen each day nationwide. Retailers spend $12 billion a year to combat theft with cameras, security guards, sensors and other devices, according to the retail association.

Yet organized theft is flourishing, and it poses a much bigger problem to stores than amateur shoplifting, Jones said. Professional retail thieves, especially addicts, are often unfazed by an arrest, he said. To a first-time shoplifter with a job and family, the embarrassment is a powerful deterrent.

"When the economy starts to get better, hopefully many of these amateurs will go back to being law-abiding citizens," Jones said. "The professionals won't."