Shameless shoplifters: Retail thefts getting bolder in California and beyond
- Retailers have been clamoring for help when it comes to organized retail thefts
- 75% of retailers reported seeing some increase in organized retail thefts throughout 2020
- California's Proposition 47 raised the felony threshold for shoplifting from $450 to $950
LOS ANGELES – The man laid a large black garbage bag on the ground of a Walgreens and nonchalantly grabbed products from shelves and threw them in before he hauled the goods out of the San Francisco store on his bicycle.
Footage of the incident and viral videos of thefts in stores in the area are examples of what retailers call a rise in the boldness of retail thefts nationwide.
California has two of the top five cities most targeted by organized retail thefts. Some of the largest shopping chains have been taking unprecedented steps in hopes of stunting the phenomenon, from cutting store hours, beefing up security measures and even closing locations entirely.
All the while retailers, officials and criminal justice advocates point the finger at one another in attempting to explain the phenomenon. Some blame a shift in state laws that lowered penalties for the crimes. Others point to the nature of the crime shifting from run-of-the-mill shoplifting to organized criminal rings, thanks in part to the explosive growth of online marketplaces that allow reselling of stolen goods.
"(There) are organized (criminal) efforts, and we want to go after those rings," Gov. Gavin Newsom said Wednesday before signing a bill aiming to curb retail thefts. "We want to go after those organized teams of folks that are connected not just within communities, but across the state."
Target, Walgreens alter stores as viral footage thrusts thefts into spotlight
Shoplifting in stores is a common problem, but retailers have clamored for help to stop organized retail thefts, in which members of a group work together to steal merchandise and sometimes resell the products, a practice that can fund other criminal activity.
In its annual survey, the National Retail Federation found such crimes cost U.S. retailers an average of more than $719,000 per $1 billion in sales in 2020, a relatively small number but one that has grown.
The amount of organized retail thefts has nearly doubled since 2015 when organized retail thefts cost retailers about $453,000 per $1 billion in sales.
The survey includes the top 10 cities that retailers said were most affected by these crimes. At the top of the list was Los Angeles, followed by Chicago, Miami and New York. San Francisco came in at No. 5 and Sacramento at 10.
Seventy-five percent of retailers reported seeing some increase in organized retail thefts throughout 2020, and many said they changed policies, curbing returns and allocating more resources for loss prevention and technology to slow the stream of thefts.
Many retailers placed placing more products behind security locks, adding security cameras and tags to prevent goods from being taken. More hired security guards.
Home Depot installed bluetooth technology in some of its power tools that, if not activated at a register at checkout, won’t work after they're taken from a store.
San Francisco becomes flashpoint in theft concerns
In San Francisco, off-duty police officers stand guard at stores in hopes of deterring thefts, though most retailers have policies discouraging employees or guards from physically stopping people out of fears for safety or potential lawsuits.
Retailers claim thefts have grown out of control, though data from the San Francisco Police Department shows thefts are down 9% compared with last year.
Along with the footage of a man calmly loading merchandise into a trash bag in a San Francisco Walgreens, another viral video shows a group of men running from a Neiman Marcus store, arms filled with luxury purses and other stolen merchandise.
Retailers said people shoplift in mass quantities and sell the stolen goods in online marketplaces, allowing sellers a sense of anonymity.
Walgreens has closed 17 of its stores in the past five years, largely because of thefts, according to Phil Caruso, a spokesman for the drugstore chain.
Caruso told USA TODAY that retail thefts in San Francisco are four times the national average, which has resulted in the chain spending more than 35 times its average on security in the city compared to the rest of the country.
Target announced this month all of its stores in the city would close at 6 p.m. because of crime – a move the retailer told USA TODAY hadn’t been employed anywhere else in the country.
“This whole thing has actually been going on for a while now, and retailers have been very concerned about it,” said Rachel Michelin, president of the California Retailer’s Association. “It's just kind of hit a, you know, DEFCON 5, I guess now with these videos and seeing some of the changes in stores.”
She said some retailers have become discouraged and stopped reporting such crimes, perceiving an unwillingness to prosecute them.
The San Francisco District Attorney’s Office rebutted such claims and pointed to its retail theft task force aimed at breaking up criminal theft rings. One operation last year recovered more than $8 million in stolen merchandise.
“No retailer or its employees should have to suffer from brazen, organized thefts. These crimes are profitable because of the vast criminal network behind them, which our office is dismantling,” said Rachel Marshall, a spokeswoman for the office.
Newsom also signed a law Wednesday aimed at curbing organized retail theft. The law reestablishes the crime of organized retail theft, which lawmakers first created in 2018 but allowed to lapse as of July 1.
Prosecutors can again seek to charge the crime as either a misdemeanor or a felony. It applies to those who work with others to steal merchandise either from brick-and-mortar stores or online, with the intent to sell or return the merchandise.
The law also reinstates a California Highway Patrol task force that analyzes organized retail theft and vehicle burglary and helps law enforcement agencies in counties it identifies as having high property crime rates.
Over the past three years, the task force’s 668 investigations included 252 arrests and the recovery of more than $16.3 billion in stolen merchandise.
Newsom said organized retail theft is more than just simple, low-level shoplifting and that the California Highway Patrol has not seen a lack of support from liberal prosecutors.
What’s behind the thefts? Can they be stopped?
In its survey, the National Retail Federation said retailers cited changing laws and penalties as one of the primary drivers of increased thefts, noting criminals took advantage of laws that increased the threshold of what is considered a felony.
The survey said many states adjusted this threshold and criminals have stolen more goods, knowing penalties won’t be as severe. Nearly two-thirds of retailers reported an increase in organized retail thefts since changes in laws.
The claim runs contrary to data and numerous studies.
In a study released in 2017, Pew Charitable Trusts found that although more than three dozen states raised the amount criminals could steal before a crime was charged as a felony, it had no effect overall on property crime or larceny. States that raised the threshold reported about the same amount of crime as others that did not.
California voters passed Proposition 47 in 2014, which raised the felony threshold for shoplifting from $450 to $950. Since then, retailers and police have pointed to the change as a primary culprit in increased losses at the stores.
Charis Kubrin, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, studied Proposition 47 and found the law had little to no effect on crime, and though there was a small increase in larcenies and auto thefts, the shift was “nonexistent at best, very modest at worst.” Kubrin noted multiple examinations, including a study focusing on Los Angeles, came to the same conclusion.
“You hear these anecdotes, like people walking around with calculators adding up how much they can steal without being charged with a felony and you see the videos of people just running out of stores. But we've had a lot of unrest. We've had a pandemic. We have high unemployment rates. We have economic issues,” she said. “So the thought that all of this is because of Prop. 47, well, if we're going to base that hunch on anything, it should go back to what the previous handful of studies have found. And so far, it's that Prop. 47 doesn't seem to be the culprit – or at least the major culprit.”
Criminal justice advocates defended the measure, noting it was proposed in the midst of staggering overcrowding in the state’s prison system.
Lenore Anderson, president of Californians for Safety and Justice, which helped write Proposition 47, said the measure saved the state hundreds of millions of dollars in incarceration fees and those savings go to recovery and diversion programs in communities that need them.
“People seem to think California did something incredibly progressive with passing Prop. 47. The truth is the state was a laggard," she said, noting that many states have much higher felony thresholds for theft. “This blame game is par for the course and honestly explains why it’s so hard to change the criminal justice system."
Some retailers hope federal legislation could be a saving grace.
Jason Brewer, a spokesman for the national Retail Industry Leaders Association, said retailers advocate for the INFORM Consumers Act, a measure aimed at China and counterfeit goods. It would force online marketplaces, such as Facebook, eBay, Craigslist and Amazon, to authenticate information about sellers and products.
The rise in online marketplaces, especially amid the coronavirus pandemic, created a “perfect storm” of sorts, Brewer said, noting the measure could cut off some of the financial incentive for these crimes.
“One of the big reasons that frankly needs more attention is the anonymity of the internet and online marketplaces,” Brewer said. “It has made it very lucrative to sell stolen goods online. Twenty years ago, you didn’t have as many choices, and it was much riskier to do. Now, it’s simple, so this could really have a huge impact.”
Contributing: Associated Press