Retail fraud is more than just shoplifting -- and now it's a felony
Story originally appeared on Freep.
Veteran cops recall when most shoplifters were loners who quietly pilfered a few bucks of trinkets after being struck -- conventional wisdom said -- by lapses in self-restraint.
Therapists gave the act a classy name: kleptomania.
But now, law enforcement agents are seeing more sophisticated thefts that they are calling organized retail fraud.
Aimed at this sophisticated style of shoplifting, a new state law goes into effect Sunday with stiffer penalties against organized retail crime.
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The law turns what has been a misdemeanor with light jail sentences into a five-year felony. Among the elements that turn ordinary shoplifting into organized retail crime are a dozen circumstances, from deactivating store security devices to conspiring with accomplices and receiving stolen store goods. Virtually anything stolen for the purpose of resale falls under the act.
"This is a completely different type of perpetrator, doing this strictly for profit, and a lot of times operating in very organized groups of two, three or more individuals," said Sgt. Andy Breidenich of the Troy Police Department.
At places like Troy's Somerset Collection and Oakland Mall, investigators say these fraud artists sometimes act alone but more often assign accomplices to be decoys and getaway drivers. Some conspire with store clerks and dash from stores only with items they can readily sell -- designer clothes, cologne, liquor, jewelry and electronics.
"The recession isn't driving this. Criminals do because it pays," said Breidenich, founder of a network that links retail-fraud investigators from Detroit to Saginaw.
The prevalence of shoplifting has risen nationwide at annual rates of 3%-4% for the last five years, forcing the average American household to pay an estimated $500 yearly to cover the losses, said Richard Mellor, vice president for loss prevention with the National Retail Federation in Washington, D.C.
Michigan is one of about 15 states to have passed special laws to deal with organized shoplifters, Mellor said.
"We're advocating this type of legislation around the country. We're actually trying to get a federal law like this passed, because many of these people cross state lines with this merchandise," he said.
"The ordinary shoplifter, the amateur who's out there but not part of a group that's brazen, they get deterred much more easily. And the retailers are very good at dealing with those people," Mellor said.
But the perpetrators of organized theft are much harder to stop, he said.
"Sometimes they take a whole rack of clothing, or a whole shelf of the same product, and out the door it goes," he said.
Troy police offered an example of how the new law will differ when it comes to penalties for shoplifters.
A 40-year-old Clinton Township man stole a shopping cart full of Red Bull energy drinks from a Kroger store in December. The man, who has a lengthy criminal history, planned to sell the drinks to party stores. Charged under Michigan's existing Retail Fraud II statute (second degree), the maximum penalty the man faced was 93 days in jail. Under the new law, he could have received five years in prison.
The new laws render obsolete Michigan's traditional penalty brackets, which date to 1931. The lightest sentences went to those guilty of third-degree retail fraud, punishable by up to 93 days in jail for stealing anything worth up to $200. Now, police said, if someone steals a low-value item but does so with elements of the organized retail crime statute, that defendant could face a prison term and a fine of $5,000.
The sponsor of the new law is state Rep. Joe Graves, R-Argentine Township. Graves said he was moved to propose the law by his wife, Denise Graves.
"My wife's spent 26 years as a manager for Meijer, and she told me a lot of stories" about the growing problem of merchandise theft, he said.