Stores Battle Shoplifting Amid Thefts by Organized Rings

Manzoor Chughtai, a 7-Eleven franchise owner, inside his store at 15th and Cecil B. Moore Avenue in North Philadelphia. Chughta, who also operates a store in Glenside, says shoplifting is a big problem for merchants. (Heather Khalifa/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)

PHILADELPHIA (The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS) — Even the Tide is behind lock and key.

Shoppers at the CVS at 19th and Chestnut Streets in Center City must wait for salespeople to unlock cases to buy detergent, Pampers and Old Spice deodorant, among many other routine products.

The heightened security and added inconvenience reflects a constant battle with shoplifters waged by retail stores across the city and the region. At the 19th Street CVS, salesclerk Jaden Mitchell says the theft is constant — and frustrating.

“All we can do is watch. The policy is you can’t touch them,” Mitchell says. “They come in with bags, fill the bags. They leave.”

“It is a big issue here,” his supervisor agrees. “I don’t want an employee to apprehend a thief because you don’t know what they will do.”

She is weary of the thieves. “The same people come in, day in and day out,” she says.

Late last year, a retail trade group sought to put a price tag on retail theft across the United States. Its report found that Pennsylvania trailed only California in the dollar amount of thievery. It also determined that as a share of all sales, Pennsylvania’s annual $5.6 billion loss last year was the highest in the nation.

The problem has been exacerbated nationwide by what some major retailers and anti-theft experts says is a proliferation of organized rings that market their stolen goods on the internet — the “new fence,” one law-enforcement official called it. In June, police busted such a ring in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, saying its leaders recruited thieves with substance-abuse issues and provided them with lists of items to steal on order. The ring targeted Home Depot and Lowe’s stores in three counties and sold the stolen goods on the web, prosecutors said.

In Philadelphia, District Attorney Larry Krasner has overhauled how his office prosecutes shoplifting. He says the policy was needed to reduce pretrial jailings and unclog the courts. But his approach has left some merchants resentful and feeling abandoned.

“People are coming in and stealing things like there’s no tomorrow.” said Vincent Immanuel, 70, who runs a 7-Eleven on Passyunk Avenue in South Philadelphia. “The district attorney says unless it is over $500, it’s not shoplifting. My G-d.”

Immanuel was referring to a policy Krasner announced soon after taking office. In a February 2018 memo, he instructed his prosecutors to seek less jail time for marijuana possession and shoplifting. Krasner decreed the office would generally treat retail theft only as a summary offense, unless the stolen item was worth more than $500 or the suspect had a history of thefts.

Krasner has won two terms in office as a new-breed prosecutor with a fresh approach to tackling crime. In the 2018 memo, Krasner pointed out that it costs taxpayers $42,000 annually to imprison someone for a year — enough money, he said, to hire a new teacher, police officer or city worker.

His agenda has had a big impact. Prosecutions for shoplifting have plummeted and those that are filed are being treated less harshly. City prosecutors brought nearly 3,600 retail theft cases in 2017, the last year before Krasner took office. In 2019, they brought about 1,150, according to statistics on the District Attorney Office’s website. That’s a fall of two-thirds.

Of the cases that remain, Krasner is bringing less-serious charges. As his 2018 memo mandated, since taking office, he has prosecuted more than eight out of 10 cases as summary offenses, akin to a traffic ticket. Before he took over, 84% were filed as at least misdemeanors.

Meanwhile, thefts are on the rise. Victims have reported about 8,300 shoplifting thefts so far this year. The count is on track to climb 37% over last year, a record one-year hike.

Krasner declined a request from the Inquirer to speak about shoplifting. But his chief of staff, Mike Lee, spoke in favor of the office policies. He said some shopkeepers had worried the cash rule would mean thieves would steal up to $499. “We haven’t seen that,” Lee said. In fact, the average theft is $201, the office said.

As for the increase in crimes, Lee said that might be driven by cutbacks in social-service help. “I don’t think you can look at our policies in a vacuum,” he said.

The district attorney was not alone in changing how authorities responded to shoplifting. Police arrests for retail theft have been falling for several years. Asked about the decline in shoplifting arrests, the Police Department issued a statement citing the decrease in the number of police officers and the prevalence of masks hindering the identification of suspects.

Paul Levy, chief executive of the Center City District, which works to keep Philadelphia’s downtown safe and clean, said quality-of-life crimes need to be treated seriously, just as violent ones are.

“That doesn’t mean incarceration. But there needs to be consequences for low-level crimes,” Levy said. “We have lots evidence that when you don’t do these things, conditions deteriorate. We need to find that middle ground.”

In the Pennsylvania suburbs, the picture is different. There, reported thefts have fallen. The Inquirer analyzed data from 51 communities in Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery counties that have filed complete crime statistics with the FBI. Most saw shopliftings decline; the collective fall was 10%. The analysis compared 2019 with 2018, the most recent figures available.

While thefts also fell nationwide between 2018 and 2019, the most recent years for which there are national statistics, some big retailers have recently been raising an alarm about shoplifting. And some news outlets, notably conservative ones, have highlighted videos in which groups rampage through stores.

Last fall, Walgreens closed five stores in San Francisco, citing “organized, rampant retail theft” — though the San Francisco Chronicle said shoplifting was not extraordinarily severe at some of the stores.

Critics have blamed thefts in California on a 2014 referendum, passed with overwhelming support, that newly classified shoplifting cases in which stolen items were worth less than $950 as misdemeanors, not felonies.

A later report by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California found that the change drove an immediate increase in shoplifting. But Professor Magnus Lofstrom, one of the authors of the report, said recently that shoplifting had not continued to climb in California after an initial surge. “That bump didn’t go away. Nor did it get any greater,” he said.

At a Congressional hearing in November, Ben Dugan, director of organized retail crime and corporate investigations at CVS Health, testified that retail theft at CVS stores had tripled since the pandemic began.

“The sale of stolen goods via online marketplaces is increasing rapidly, representing a serious threat to legitimate businesses of all sizes and subjecting our colleagues and in-person and online shoppers to real harm,” he testified.

He urged Congress to enact the INFORM Consumers Act, which would require sellers on Amazon, eBay, Facebook Marketplace and the like to provide a trackable bank account, tax ID, email and phone number. Though all three big online sellers now say they support some form of federal legislation, they fought it for months on grounds that the push was a Trojan Horse by “big box retailers” to fortify their competitive positions.

In the recent arrest in Montgomery County, police charged Joseph Payea, 67, and Penelope McClain, 49, both of Macungie, Pennsylvania, with recruiting a network of people to steal from Lowe’s and Home Depot stores in Montgomery, Lehigh and Berks counties. Their preferred booty were DeWalt and Milwaukee tools. Payea would provide thieves with “want lists” online and deal with buyers and sellers via Facebook Marketplace.

“The fact that the corrupt organization was using individuals suffering from addiction is unconscionable and furthered their addiction to poisons,” Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin P. Steele said at the time of the arrests.

During one day alone at an outdoor market, investigators said, the pair sold more than $50,000 in stolen goods. When police raided their properties, officers seized more than 500 new tools, including 44 chainsaws, and more than 60 spools of wire. The items were valued at $100,000. Police also found $88,000 in cash in a safe at Payea’s home.

The defendants’ trials are pending.

At the big-box stores, the thieves would load items into shopping carts and simply roll out the exit, a tactic that store detectives call a “push-out.” At a Target store, employees interviewed for this story said groups of thieves would sometimes deploy one member to make a scene somewhere else in the store, drawing attention and sales personnel, while the rest grabbed items. In Philadelphia, merchants said the new law banning stores from supplying plastic bags meant that many customers now bring bags with them, making it harder to spot those intent on shoplifting.

It can all happen very quickly. In May, five thieves wearing hoodies and gloves raced in and out of a 7-Eleven in Glenside, Pennsylvania, ransacking it. Members of the same crew were believed to have hit a business in Ridley, Pennsylvania, earlier that same day.

Manzoor Chughta, 57, who operates the Glenside store, as well a 7-Eleven in North Philadephia, said his profits were too small for him to hire security guards. He said theft was a growing worry that has left him and his employees with no safe way to counter the thieves. “It’s getting worse day by day,” he said.

“It’s very difficult,” Chughta said. ”Nobody wants to fight with them.”

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