Fighting Organized Retail Crime: Forget the hype!

Brandon Gregg challenges current thinking about organized shoplifting rings. Forget the hype and get back to basics.

Several years ago, after reading an article by former Target Investigation head Chris Nelson, I made it my goal to get hired with their Organized Retail Crime (ORC) Investigation Team for three reasons: direction, innovation and resources.

The concept of actually tracking boosters to their local fence, the local fence to a gray or black market distributor and then shutting the whole illegal infrastructure down with surveillance documentation that would put most FBI stings to shame demonstrated Target was paving the future of combating ORC. (Read much more in CSOonline's Organized retail theft: Facts and myths.)

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Flash forward ten years later: ORC is an overused catchphrase that most retailers do not have the direction, innovation or resources to tackle, nor need to. Even more surprising is seeing year after year more resource wasting teams, libelous regional law enforcement alerts and other self promoting ORC experts line their own pockets while your business gets hit by the same boosters.

Here's how to make a real impact on ORC at your company or individual store level, without wasting time, money or listening to all the hype.

Educate

The first step in making an impact is clearing the air of the catchphrase "ORC" through education. Often I read emails from peers and law enforcement regional alerts detailing an alleged ORC subject who shoplifted two or three pairs of jeans.

Shoplifting does not immediately make the subject connected to ORC. Labeling a subject into this category first takes a large collection of data and basic investigation that most stores are lacking. Categorizing your shoplifters should never contain assumptions or be taken as lightly as many Loss Prevention professionals currently do in their reports and alerts. If the subject evades arrest and you have no evidence (documented surveillance, statement from Law Enforcement or subject) then do not label them as a habitual, booster, professional or ORC shoplifter. You have no proof of their intentions other than stealing one or two times, making them no different than your average teenage shoplifter.

Also see Retail security: Critical strategies

Proper documentation will help limit the hype as well as provide realistic metrics that can be used to justify better resources in the future that can actually combat the right type of theft at your company.

Document, document, document

Metrics not only provide statistics for more resources, but are the very core raw data used to prevent future ORC with impactful arrests. Instead of chasing organized rings across the country with wasteful budgets and limited quality resources (trained and experienced personnel, time, equipment, etc) metrics and proper documentation in your own report/incident system or even a basic excel spreadsheet will make the largest blow to professional thieves. The key to your documentation is providing Law Enforcement with clear data showing repeat offenders and/or conspiracy to steal from your company.

Currently if you arrest a known booster and their partner, Law Enforcement most likely will cut them loose with a petty theft misdemeanor charge and laugh at any suggestion the subject(s) should be arrested for trespass, burglary, felony shoplift and conspiracy. These charges aren't listed as separate but rather a lump collection to get your subjects off the street and most importantly educate the bad guys that your company doesnt take lightly to shoplifters. It many sound impossible, but with the right documentation, evidence collection and updated information you can swing Law Enforcement's method of operation into a supportive role that keeps boosters out of your store for good with these charges.

Every major theft or attempted theft needs to be well documented, with dates, times, inventory of losses, video clips of the incidents (on CD or DVD), printed face shots, subject descriptions, methods of operation, vehicle information, a police case number for each known incident and any other vital information to the case. The second and most important part to collecting this information is having it ready at a moment's notice, even between stores, regions or states. Your company incident tracking system, a shared network drive or even email chain can keep things updated so you may print out this information when your store arrests a repeat offender.

Having this package will help present your argument to the patrol officer that the subject meets the criteria for a more severe charge (after the first hit you attempted to put john doe on notice), repeat shoplift offender statues, burglary (intent, tools)and conspiracy (working with others, look out, vehicle, etc). The better collection of facts and presentation, the more wins your store will receive.

Share information—but not publicly!

Sharing your subject information on ORC websites, local meetings and regional alerts should be stopped and limited between your own stores. Too many alerts improperly label subjects in accusatory or inappropriate manners without solid documentation or police reports to back up what can easily become libelous posts for the public to read. If you don't have the traditional "six steps" on video or in a detailed report, you are exposing your company to the equivalent of a bad arrest. Prevent this altogether by not sharing your sensitive company information to the public.

Don't be misled or confused: ORC websites and alerts are public! No matter what "formal" statement the site might post, the sites are accessible to anyone. If you don't believe me, see how easy it is to setup a fake account on your local ORC site. or hope someone that sees the information doesn't forward your alert to his friend's girlfriend that you posted about. Her lawyer will personally thank you.

On top of not sharing information to the public, other companies should not receive information that will help their investigations, even when you're after the same subjects. Remember the core of the Loss Prevention department is to protect your company's bottom line and make money. By now you probably have realized ORC groups are repeat offenders and don't stop. The key to preventing loss is letting the bad guys know your company makes felony arrests and they should skip your stores and hit another company instead. Your sales will go up, the competitor's sales go down.

If this philosophy bothers you, become a police officer.

As a Loss Prevention professional your goal is to limit liability (bad alerts) and prevent monetary loss for your company and shareholders with solid arrests, deterring theft and increasing sales with product on your shelves. Your loss prevention strategy should be treated as highly confidential and protected like any core function of your business. This doesn't prevent you from participating in ORC organizations, alerts or other intelligence gathering events, but limit your exposure and help your company by not providing information.

Work on the cases that matter

When documenting your losses, reviewing detailed shortage reports and communicating them to your teams. The goal is to focus resources on the right tasks like a laser, rather than to just throw money or bodies at the problem.

Too many ORC teams now are taking to the streets and malls, hunting boosters that don't even shoplift in their own store, or working credit card fraud cases that don't affect the bottom line.

Each hour you spend on surveillance outside your store, your basic and professional shoplifters are hitting your stores, while you miss the arrest or deterrence factor and every dollar you spend on an analyst or agent tracking a credit card ring, an employee takes cash and merchandise right out of your bottom line. Skip helping your next door retailer and bragging about hundred thousand dollar credit card wins and focus on watching high theft items, deterrence, intelligence collection and customer service. Sales will go up, theft will go down and your LP resources can be put to better use. Shoplifters rely on opportunity, and when your resources are off the sales floor, that creates all types of opportunity.

Save your company and yourself from a lot of hardships and return to the basics of treating all theft equally. Although the four tips may sound controversial—especially if you are gung-ho about making big ORC arrests—once you look past the hype of ORC and focus your attention back to all theft in your store, you will see a great positive impact on your bottom line.

Brandon Gregg is a corporate investigations manager. He previously worked on Target's ORC investigations team for several years.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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