Verner column: City bucking recession’s crime trend

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 17, 2009

A brazen bandit holds up an armed car in broad daylight in China Grove.
Thieves armed with hacksaws and chisels cut away catalytic converters from cars parked on dealer lots and steal copper drain pipes from the library and other buildings downtown.
A local bank revamps its security system with a high-tech metal-detector and remote-controlled doors to deter robbers.
Judging from these recent headlines in the Salisbury Post, you might conclude we’re in the midst of a crime wave involving robbers and thieves who, made desperate by the dismal economy, are resorting to ever bolder escapades.
But that doesn’t appear to be the case, judging from reports filed with the Salisbury Police over the past nine months, a time frame that roughly correlates to the period when the economy tanked. In fact, when Salisbury Police Chief Mark Wilhelm and his staff reviewed the reports covering that period for crimes like shoplifting and robbery, what they found might come as a surprise.
“Overall,” Wilhelm said, “the crimes we think of as being most affected by the economy are down.”
Shoplifting, robberies and burglaries show a decline, while larcenies (which can involve fraud as well as theft of personal property) have increased only in the past two months.
Wilhelm said the results surprised him a little. But while crime rates and economic trends show some historical correlation, according to sociologists, it isn’t a straight-line link, especially in less urban areas. Thefts of catalytic converters and copper relate more to metal prices than unemployment rates. Laid-off workers are more likely to seek unemployment benefits than rob banks. And, as Wilhelm notes, some incidents never come to the attention of police. With shoplifting, for instance, merchants may ban a perpetrator rather than pursue prosecution. Or they may simply decide that it’s not worth their time and effort to go after petty thieves.
Nationally, however, there’s nothing petty about the problem, and Salisbury appears to be bucking a dramatic surge in shoplifting and similar crimes. In a trend that may be symptomatic of a sour economy, retail associations have reported sharp increases in thefts of store merchandise. In a recent survey by the National Retail Federation, 73 percent of store operators said they were experiencing more in-store pilfering.
In the popular imagination, we might think of that as a consequence of desperate individuals driven to criminal activity by desperate times, like Victor Hugo’s fictional character Jean Valjean stealing bread to feed his family in “Les Miserables.” But with shoplifting estimated to be a $35 billion a year problem ó even in a better economy ó motivation is usually more about raw greed than the struggle for survival. The most serious threat isn’t from individuals who are temporarily down on their luck but organized crime rings that rely on increasingly sophisticated strategies to outwit anti-theft devices.
In one case that made national headlines, for instance, a man in Dayton, Ohio, operated a shoplifting ring that netted more than $1 million by printing fake bar code labels on his home computer and then putting them on items at Wal-Mart and other stores. This subterfuge allowed him and his partners to buy the items at a fraction of the actual price and resell them on the Internet for hefty profits.
In another scam that Florida authorities dubbed “Operation Hot Milk,” 21 people were arrested in March in connection with a multimillion-dollar baby formula theft ring. The modus operandi, in general, involved men acting as lookouts and getaway drivers while women went into stores and slipped cans of powdered formula worth about $25 each into their bags.
While thievery is as old as civilization itself, the computer age has opened up new avenues of criminality. Online trafficking in shoplifting items is so prevalent, it has spawned new enterprises on both sides of the law. One recent news story described a shady Internet “entrepreneur” who had a thriving business offering fake purchase receipts that, presumably, one could pair with stolen items to get cash refunds. Meanwhile, another company offers software that helps store owners track stolen goods being sold online and at pawn shops. And in response to the surge in stolen merchandise, the FBI recently teamed with Target and other major retailers to develop a database that allows them to compare notes on theft suspects and their methods. Target even has its own forensics lab and uses regional hubs to monitor video surveillance cameras at its nationwide stores.
As for whether the recent uptick in local larcenies means that the larger trend may eventually overtake Salisbury, we’ll have to see what subsequent months bring. But even with the jobless rate continuing to rise, we probably shouldn’t worry about Rowan County experiencing an epidemic of armored-car heists.
“I think that’s a pretty safe assumption,” Wilhelm says.
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Chris Verner is editorial page editor of the Salisbury Post.