'Tis the season for holiday shoplifting

Stores want strong holiday traffic in a tough economy, but they'd like to avoid some of the foot traffic — a growing number of shoplifters. December is the worst month for shoplifting, experts say, and the crime has been on the increase for about two years.

Shoplifters can be hard to spot but are major players in thefts that cost American retailers about $13 billion a year. And more people are doing it for the first time.

"They can be anyone — your mother, my sister — there is no profile," said Barbara Staib, communications director for the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention.

Modesto police see a slight increase in shoplifting during the holiday season.

Some of the people recently arrested told officers the failing economy pushed them to shoplift to make ends meet, said Sgt. Brian Findlen, a police spokesman.

"Without a doubt, the economy is not helping the situation," Findlen said.

Most shoplifters are otherwise normal people, experts say, but some get addicted to the rush of a five-finger discount.

Three-quarters of 27 million people who shoplift act out of impulse related to social or personal pressures, according to the association. They steal anywhere from $2 to $200 in goods at a time and often buy something as well.

Findlen said shoplifters in Modesto get caught up in the holiday shopping atmosphere. They get a false sense of anonymity in the large crowds of holiday shoppers.

"When you have more people shopping, like at the malls, you'll have people who decide to steal on an impulse," Findlen said. "They just feel that there are so many people there that they can't be seen."

Actually, most of the larger stores and malls have sophisticated surveillance equipment and employees dedicated to catching shoplifters red-handed, Findlen said.

They come from all demographics

Of course, there have been famous thieves such as actresses Winona Ryder and Hedy Lamarr, but shoplifters come from every demographic.

In an incident this month, Overland Park, Kan., charged an assistant county prosecutor with shoplifting about $40 worth of deodorant and liquid bandages.

Not unusual at all, said Terrence Shulman, an author and counselor on the subject who also is a lawyer with a master's degree in social work — and a former shoplifter.

Shulman, who founded Cleptomaniacs and Shoplifters Anonymous in 1991, said lawyers often have been among his clients.

"I've worked with doctors, lawyers, prosecutors, judges, millionaires," he said.

Most amateur shoplifters tend to have middle-class incomes, he said, although that might be shifting in hard economic times.

"Most people are doing it when there is a perceived loss in their lives or a loss of control and a perceived injustice or unfairness," he said. "It's a secret cry for help but also an attempt to regain power or control." Casey Chroust, an executive vice president with the Retail Industry Leaders Association, said most shoplifters don't do it to feed families.

"These are not Robin Hood stories," he said. "They're stealing iPods and other luxury items; they're trying to maintain a lifestyle they can no longer afford." The largest increases in shoplifting reported this year were in clothing and electronics, his trade group reported.

Last December, more than 80 percent of retailers in Chroust's trade association reported that amateur shoplifting had increased in the previous six months. Not one reported a decline, he said. In a May update this year, more than 60 percent reported additional increases, he said, and the trend is worldwide.

Worldwide retail losses up 6 percent

A global study that came out this month reported that retail losses related to all thefts increased almost 6 percent on average in 41 countries in the year ending in June.

The largest part of that $121 billion in increased losses, 41 percent, was caused by shoplifting. Overall, the increased losses in the United States and 40 other countries cost each family $208 in higher prices for goods.

Retailers are in a bind, Chroust said, because they probably can't afford to hire as many loss-prevention officers as they would like.

"They have to make do with what they have to stymie this," he said.

However, more retailers are using high-tech tools, such as wires with electronic sensors wrapped around boxes of high-end items and smart cameras that send signals over the Internet.

As for gift cards, which were widely stolen last year, they now are useless at many stores unless a clerk has activated them at the time of purchase.

Shulman warned that December is the most dangerous time for recovering shoplifters or for those trying to stop.

It's best they avoid going into stores entirely over the holidays, he said, and shop on the Internet instead and spend time with family and friends.

"There are a lot of things we can do that don't involve going to stores willy-nilly," he said.

And retailers probably would not mind losing those particular customers.

Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at or 578-2394.