BROOKSVILLE —The 20-year-old approached the meat cooler at Publix and looked down. She snatched three rib eye steaks, shoved them in her purse and walked toward the front door. As a manager tried to stop her, she ran into the parking lot.
The day before her 32nd birthday, a Brooksville woman stole $1,607.94 in jewelry and pajama pants from Sears on Cortez Boulevard. She told a deputy she didn't feel bad for stealing from a corporation.
A mother of three used one of her kids to steal $102 in products from the Beall's in Spring Hill. She slipped a pair of stolen Converse sneakers on her 9-year-old and told the child to walk out the front door with a purse packed with pilfered jewelry.
All of those people were arrested and charged with shoplifting. To many, the crime doesn't seem as egregious or offensive as those that paint the headlines each day. For one, they say, it's just not that common. And, really, some people wonder whether the thieves harm anyone other than the multibillion-dollar big-box stores, which surely can afford the losses.
But as shoppers — and shoplifters — descend upon stores today and in the coming weeks of the Christmas shopping season, the truth about the crimes may be surprising.
Retail thefts in Hernando are on pace to exceed 550 this year. That's about one for every 300 people.
Nationwide, researchers say, retailers lost a staggering $35.2 billion in merchandise last year. Much of that resulted from fraud and theft.
And do the corporations really swallow all of those losses? Not even close, said Joseph LaRocca, vice president of loss prevention at the National Retail Federation.
In fact, LaRocca said, the average household pays $352 a year to cover the costs. That's more than 60 percent of what the typical Hernando homeowner paid in taxes to support the county's general fund this year.
Those figures don't factor in the trickle-down cost from the more than $10 billion retailers spend annually on security, LaRocca said. The numbers also don't include the money taxpayers cover to fund law enforcement officers who devote much of their time to working with the stores and arresting the thieves.
Shoplifting, LaRocca said, is typically a crime of opportunity. People need or want something, they see an opening, and they commit the crime.
Retail theft is not limited to just shoplifting, though. Thieves often replace bar codes on expensive items with those from cheaper ones, then try to check out and pay far less than they should.
Others find receipts in parking lots or trash cans so they can go into the store, pick up the original item and then try to get money from the store in exchange for the "returned" item.
Hernando sheriff's Deputy Dustin Adkins has noticed another trend: People purchase an item, take it home and then remove it from the box. Then they place something of similar weight — often a rock — back in the box before they reseal it. If the store employee doesn't check the box's contents, Adkins said, the ploy often works.
Many people also buy items like clothes, tools or televisions for one-time use before returning the product to the store to get their money back. Although it's not illegal, the practice is costly to businesses and, by extension, consumers.
Beyond individual thieves, LaRocca said, gangs of well-organized bandits called "boosters" plan extravagant heists of multiple stores in which they can pilfer thousands of dollars in merchandise in a single day. Over time, he said, the rings often steal goods valued at sums well into the millions.
In most places, shoplifting doesn't increase proportionally before or during the holiday season, LaRocca said. Organized retail crime, however, often spikes as the thieves "stock their shelves" with products to sell on secondary markets, including the Internet or at swap meets.
Quality surveillance is essential to preventing and especially catching the criminals, Adkins said. Loss-prevention officers at the stores spend much of their days scanning cameras for potential thieves. Many corporations even employ "intelligent" video systems that can autonomously spot suspicious activity and report it to store personnel.
The video evidence is critical to prosecute a case.
"That's the key, because the whole crime is right there in front of you on tape," he said. "It's indisputable evidence."
John Woodrow Cox can be reached at (352) 848-1432 or [email protected]