’Tis the season when criminals steal merchants’ holiday cheer

The holiday shopping season is in full swing, but unfortunately, so is the holiday swindling season.

The holiday shopping season is in full swing, but unfortunately, so is the holiday swindling season.

The criminal offenses that increase in stores during November and December read like Santa’s naughty list: robbery, shoplifting, counterfeiting, credit card fraud and return theft.

Packed shops are often easy targets for unscrupulous individuals, and many stores see large losses during the retail world’s most profitable time of year.

Lt. Robert Winn of the Colonie Police Department said holiday season is also robbery season.

“There’s a lot of cash on hand in these stores, and people, with the holidays coming up, seem to be more desperate for money,” he said.

The tough economy isn’t helping matters, he noted.

Cash isn’t the only thing stolen during the holiday season. Shoplifting is also an issue.

More than $13 billion worth of goods ares ripped off from retailers each year, reports the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention, a nonprofit organization providing research-based shoplifting prevention initiatives, including education, prevention, justice and rehabilitation programs.

“Black Friday was crazy at the store, so we were constantly monitoring people,” said Kate Halasz, owner of Aunt Katie’s Attic in Scotia.

When her consignment shop is packed with shoppers, merchandise often disappears.

“When we have events, or when we have a flea market, when we have an open house, we notice stuff missing at those times. And there are times when there are just a few people wandering around that things disappear, too. It’s just a sign of the times,” she said.

“We had recently one glass [that belonged] to a set of glasses disappear, which was really bizarre,” she noted. Another unlikely item taken by a shoplifter was a bulky piece of cast iron.

To combat the problem, Halasz no longer permits customers to roam the store with purses, backpacks or bags. Some people are offended, she noted, and she feels bad about that, but she needs to protect her inventory.

“The more inventory I lose, how far behind is my business? My customers are very important, but I won’t have any customers if I don’t have the business to open the doors to.”

Janet Hutchison, owner of The Open Door Bookstore in Schenectady, uses a video surveillance system to thwart shoplifters.

“[Shoplifting] happens. I can’t deny that it happens, but I don’t consider it a huge issue,” she said. “We’ve had good cooperation from the Schenectady police when we’re able to provide them with a photograph of someone shoplifting, and they’ve been very good about following through on that and quick to respond if we’ve called to say we believe somebody just took something.”

Cat-and-mouse game

Criminals can find ways to get around surveillance systems, noted Rebecca Flach, spokeswoman for the Retail Council of New York State.

“They go in and study the stores and where their security personnel is and their cameras and that sort of thing, and know how to get around all that stuff,” she said. “One of the things they do is they go in with large bags that are lined with tinfoil and it defeats the security detectors at the doors, and we’ve watched videos of them literally clean off entire shelves worth of merchandise.”

Shoplifters will also stuff merchandise into baby strollers and wheelchairs, and put on layers of garments in the dressing room. “They’ll walk out of the store and they could have hundreds of dollars of merchandise on them and you would never know it,” she said.

Once holiday time hits, there’s usually an increase in missing merchandise at Different Drummer’s Kitchen in Stuyvesant Plaza.

“This plaza is not a high shoplifting area, but then you walk by and see a pan gone that you know was there,” said Michele Weiser, the store’s manager. “Inventory’s [taken] right after the holidays and we notice a big discrepancy, unfortunately.”

Items that have been repeatedly stolen from the store include scales and butane, which Weiser speculated are being used in conjunction with the illegal drug trade. Those products are now positioned on the sales counter, where clerks can keep a close eye on them.

Confronting shoplifters is not something Weiser is eager to do.

“It’s dangerous,” she said. “There’s not a whole lot you can do and I’m certainly not going to run after someone and tackle them. And with the laws being what they are, can you really accuse someone without bringing on a lawsuit?”

Rubbery payment

Bad checks have also presented a problem at Different Drummer’s Kitchen. One customer wrote a $1,000 check for merchandise and the check bounced. “The next day he came back and tried to return the merchandise that he had purchased with the bad check,” Weiser recounted.

The most common crimes committed at holiday time are ones that, like bad checks, show up at the cash register. Counterfeit money and stolen credit cards are frequently used during November and December, Winn said.

“Last year, we saw like a 300 percent increase in counterfeit money around the holidays,” he noted.

Phony bills and stolen or forged credit cards often get past clerks who are rushing to move the checkout line. Harried clerks might not scrutinize large bills, check IDs or verify the signatures of credit card users.

“They’re trying to move through the line so fast that they don’t always pick up on the cues that they would normally pick up on,” Winn said.

Theft by employees also spikes during the holiday season, sometimes by longtime employees, but also at the hands of temporary holiday help, he noted.

Once Christmas is over, lines stretch long at customer service counters as people return scores of unwanted gifts. That’s another time when scammers strike.

According to the National Retail Federation’s annual Return Fraud Survey, the retail industry will lose an estimated $3.84 billion to return fraud this holiday season.

“We have people who use counterfeit receipts,” said Flach. “Graphic design software is readily accessible. It’s not hard to use, and people can recreate receipts.”

Another type of return fraud is wardrobing, which is when someone purchases an item of clothing, uses it, and then returns it for a refund. Often it’s done with expensive attire.

“People wear it and then return it, but of course it’s dirty and can’t be resold, and it ends up going into the damaged merchandise, at a loss to the merchant,” Flach explained.

Other swindlers bring stolen merchandise to the customer service counter and say they lost the receipt. “They got it for nothing, but they’re returning it to get some extra cash and basically laundering money,” she said.

Vigilance is key

Paul O’Donnell, owner of Celtic Treasures in Saratoga Springs, says he’s extra vigilant in his search for scammers during the busy holiday season and seldom has issues.

“The really crowded nights here in town, we just put extra staff on. All the valuable stuff is under lock and key,” he said.

Being a member of Saratoga’s Downtown Business Association is beneficial when it comes to stopping thieves, he noted.

“If we suspect [criminal activity] is going on, we will alert the other stores to be on the lookout,” he said. “We have a phone chain and an email alert. Even if someone passes a bogus counterfeit bill, [store owners] are telling others about it.”

Categories: Schenectady County

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