FORT EUSTIS, Va. (April 23, 2009) -- Shoplifting has a simple enough definition: the stealing of anything from a shop. The definition may seem painless, but what about the act'
You might think a military base is the last place someone would attempt to shoplift, but think again. As futile and detrimental as it may seem, shoplifting is an ongoing local and Army-wide issue. But why' Who is willing to take the risk; why do they try it and what happens when they get caught' And they do get caught.
"There's a camera that covers pretty much every part of the store (post exchange)," said Myra Florence, Fort Eustis PX general manager. "The eye in the sky in this store pretty much covers everything. They can run, but they can't hide."
Cameras, meant to deter both customers and employees, can even zoom in on the cash register, which is the final barrier for customers who have something on them they haven't paid for.
"Once they get past the register, it's theft," Florence said. "They don't have to get to the front door of the mall." She said shoplifting takes dividends from MWR (Morale, Welfare and Recreation). There's not only the theft and criminal charges involved, but a civil recovery flat fee of $200, according to Florence.
Florence said the majority of shoplifters are family members, but added that they catch active duty and civilians. While AAFES does catch shoplifters, its focus is prevention.
"We're going to catch them, but our goal is to deter the theft," Florence said. She said the store has set internal controls that the employees have to follow to not give customers an opportunity to steal.
"A lot of times, if you give them an opportunity, they'll take it," she said. But if you take away the opportunity, it makes things a lot harder for them and they are less likely to steal. However, once an incident occurs, Military Police investigators get involved.
"We have three different kinds of shoplifting we handle," said Robert Lloyd, supervisor of investigations on Fort Eustis. "You have your military members, regular civilians and juveniles. All three of them are handled in a different way."
Lloyd said military personnel are picked up and brought over to the PX to watch the video to make sure there is a concealment of property.
"Once we verify that shoplifting took place, we verbally advise them of their rights and bring them back here (Military Police Station) and conduct a rights waiver form with them," Lloyd said. "They can either invoke or waive their rights to talk to us or not talk to us."
If the individual decides they want to talk, they have an opportunity to give a statement saying why they did it or they can deny or admit to it, according to Lloyd.
"We question and answer them," Lloyd added. Service members who get caught, lose their Army and Air Force Exchange Service privileges for six months.
"We call their unit and an E-7 (sergeant first class) or above has to come and sign for them," Lloyd said.
Cases involving adult civilians are pretty much handled the same away, according to Lloyd. The main difference with them is after a rights waiver is conducted and the suspect finishes their statement or invokes their rights asking for a lawyer, they are given a mandatory summons to appear in court, usually about two months after an incident.
"They go in front of a federal judge who hears their case and finds them guilty or not guilty," Lloyd said.
As for juveniles, Lloyd said they are the hardest shoplifting cases they have. Juveniles have to be transported with an unmarked officer. They can't be with a uniformed officer or even in a marked vehicle.
"We go over the video tape with them as well," Lloyd said. He added they immediately contact the child's sponsor/parent/guardian - someone who can come in and claim them or verify that they are their child.
"Once we do that, we get permission from the parent to transport them to the MP station like we would any other shoplifter," Lloyd said. "At the station, we actually have to wait for mom, dad or a guardian to come in.
"The juveniles don't panic until we tell them we have to call mom or dad and they try to get us to not call them," Lloyd said. "The biggest thing that bothers me and my investigators is when we have to call their parents and tell them we have their child in custody. I absolutely hate doing that and my investigators do as well."
Florence added they see some mental breakdowns from all types of shoplifters after they are caught.
"They'll say 'I never knew this was going to happen' or 'I didn't think about it before I did it' or 'please don't call the cops' - that kind of thing," Florence said.
Parents/guardians have to be present while juveniles are advised of their rights and while they make their statements. Parents also have to sign the rights waiver and the statement once the juvenile completes it, to prove to the courts in Newport News that the MPs didn't take advantage of anyone and that the parents were there with the child to assist.
Although Lloyd said juvenile cases are the hardest, he also said it's service members and adult civilians that account for many of the incidents.
"Our juvenile crime rate for shoplifting has actually dropped off significantly," Lloyd said. Juveniles who admit to the offense and are first time offenders are sent to the juvenile advisory committee on post who decides their fate. Lloyd said it's usually community service, writing an essay or receiving counseling. Second-time offenders are sent to the juvenile court system and go before a judge.
"A lot of the kids are familiar with my partner and myself," Lloyd said. "They know when we show, we're going to do what we have to do."
However, Lloyd said processing shoplifting cases is lengthy and involves a lot of paperwork.
"When we start the case file, it starts about a quarter inch thick," Lloyd said. "By the time we finalize it, make sure the courts, Staff Judge Advocate, units and whoever is responsible for the individual is notified, the file will be anywhere from an inch and a half to two inches thick. It usually takes us about three weeks to finish it up."
Lloyd said it's amazing the amount of video tapes he has received from loss prevention at AAFES involving shoplifting.
He added that the majority of shoplifters want to deny their act before seeing themselves on tape.
"Once we confront them with video evidence, I'd say about 70 percent admit something," Lloyd added. "The majority of them are not taking things that are necessities. It amazes me that people just go in and grab the stuff," Lloyd said. "I've never seen one person come out with something they needed like diapers for a baby or formula. It amazes me that people would try to get away with it."
Florence said often times shoplifters just don't want to pay for something and they think they can get away with it. After being caught, they want to go back and pay for the stolen items. She estimates that 90 percent of the time, shoppers have the necessary money in their pocket.
"Then they are remorseful when they find out that they can't (just pay for items)," she said. "It's too late to turn back at that point."
Lloyd said many of them take video games and DVD players. "They hit the electronics hard," he said.
However, shoplifting isn't as big of a problem as it used to be, according to Lloyd.
"My office is up to 205 cases so far and about a third of those are shoplifting, which is far better than 2008," Lloyd said. "People are starting to realize the people at loss prevention are pretty good at what they do. They have a really good system in place."
While shoplifting incidences went up slightly from 2007 to 2008, check frauds went way down in 2008, according to Florence.
"Compared to what you see on the outside, it's not a tremendous amount (of incidences)," Florence said.
AAFES also plans to add Electronic Article Surveillance this year, which activates an alarm when items are not paid for.
While investigators deal with issues after the act, they also do walking patrols through the aisles at the PX.
"Word of mouth has actually turned into a good deterrent for juveniles," said Lloyd. "It's not a real big post - they talk." He said juveniles usually come in pairs.
"Either you have an accomplice or both are involved in it," Lloyd said. He said an attorney he works with in Newport News says there's no such thing as loyalty between juveniles.
"As soon as we separate them, one is always going to tell what the other one did and vice versa," he added. "From the notes we gather, we can get the truth out of them. It's true for adults as well. If you treat the shoplifters like a human being and don't talk down to them, you'll generally get the underlying answer."
He said the shoplifters are all treated fairly when they are brought in.
"We offer them food and drink to make them feel comfortable," Lloyd said. "We try to make it as speedy of a process as possible, but your average shoplifting case is going to take an investigator an hour to an hour and a half to complete. Then the paperwork starts and that's when the real work begins."
While shoplifting is on the decline from last year, there is no profile for shoplifters. Lloyd has dealt with juveniles under age 10 as well as someone as old as 63. Gender is just as random as age.
"It's dead even - 50/50 males and females," Lloyd said. He said the males usually go after electronics and the females go for clothes and jewelry. The teenage girls target make-up.
"It's just not worth it," Lloyd said of shoplifting. "I've seen people go to court and get anywhere from 30 to 60 days in a federal jail." He said shoplifters would not want to face the judge they would face in Newport News. "You don't want to have to go in front of this man if you're found guilty," Lloyd said. "He's very unforgiving. He'll listen to your side of the story, but when he makes a decision, he tells it like it is. He doesn't sugarcoat anything."