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Technology faces moving target in thwarting thefts; But retailers persist as losses from stores continue to rise

Retailers never give up fighting the bad guys.

They're adopting new technologies to protect against credit card fraud and counterfeit bills. They're hiring firms to conduct background checks on job applicants. Distribution centers are putting smaller, harder-to-detect GPS devices in cargo shipments.

Ink-dispensing and alarm-setting bulky tags still keep some goods from walking out the door. One kind of alarm tag can go into the meat soaker pad under a packaged T-bone steak.

"Oh yes, food and alcohol are high-theft items," said Karen Bomber, marketing director at Tyco Retail Solutions.

Retail theft keeps rising. Last year, retailers lost $37.14 billion, or 1.58 percent of total retail sales, up from 1.44 percent in 2009, according to an annual study by the National Retail Federation, and Richard Hollinger, University of Florida professor of criminology.

Employee theft accounted for the biggest share of those losses -- 44 percent. Shoplifting was second, with 33 percent, Hollinger said. Administrative errors, vendor fraud and unknown causes constituted the rest.

The results are based on survey responses from 124 companies. Almost 19 percent of employee theft cases involved collusion between internal and external sources, he said.

"How does that old Pogo comic strip go? 'We have seen the enemy, and he is us,' " Hollinger said.

New technology is about to make some efforts to stop retail theft obsolete, though it won't happen overnight.

Take credit cards, said Joe LaRocca, the National Retail Federation's loss prevention staff expert. "We've spent 20 years adding holograms, expiration dates, setting up authentication numbers to call before a new card can be used -- all sorts of things."

"Now my credit cards are going to be on this," he said, holding up his iPhone.

"New ways to shop will change a lot of what we do in loss prevention," LaRocca said.

Cameras trained on cash registers have helped deter theft, but now clerks use hand-held checkout tools in the aisles and even in fitting rooms, he said.

Other retailers have started to follow Apple's lead of sending receipts to the customer's e-mail account, LaRocca said. "Will that make it easier for people to walk out the door with more than what they purchased?"

Store maps are accessible on smart phones, and social media present some scary threats to stores, said Bill Titus, loss prevention manager of Sears Holding Corp. "When are flash mobs organized on Twitter going to start stealing from our stores?"

How-to-shoplift videos are easily found online, he said. "If you think the last 10 years were turbulent and required our stores to adapt, stand back for the next 10 years."

Clinton Electronics of Loves Park, Ill., sells monitors that are visible in store aisles.

"Watching yourself on a monitor keeps some people from shoplifting," said Jason West, a Clinton salesman. The company is testing 8-inch monitors in the high-theft plumbing fixture aisles of a home improvement chain. "So far, it's reduced theft and increased sales."

Tyco's new reusable radio-frequency hard tags for garments double as anti-theft and inventory-counting devices, Bomber said. "If the store doesn't know a shirt is missing in a certain size, it's not going to make that sale."

Not all stores have employee theft problems, Hollinger said, but every retailer has to watch out for professional thieves.

Even LifeWay Christian Stores has a director of loss prevention. Melissa Mitchell listed DVDs, CDs and other resellable goods as the items stolen most often.

Even Bibles are shoplifted, she said. "It's not any more bold; it just feels more wrong. But for us, it's not so much employee theft as professionals who peg the stores as easy marks."

And she explained why the company believes employee theft isn't a big issue for LifeWay.

"As part of our huddle in the morning, we have devotion," she said. "It's a different dynamic for us when you pray for your co-worker's sick mother in the morning versus working at a store where you don't even know your co-worker's name."

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