Sunday, February 19, 2006

Criminals Among Us

The next time (or the first time, for some of you) you find yourself in a shopping mall, look around and see if you can spot the criminal. Apparently they're out there in force. Their actions are insidious rather than violent, yet we pay a price for their crimes.

The crime is theft, and it's big business.

The Red Star reports: "Grand theft -- refined to an art":

Investigators called him Fred Flintstone because of his girth, but the nickname seems inappropriate for a thief nimble enough to steal $16,818 worth of goods in a single day.

With the precision of a surgeon, Bienvenid Manuel Figueroa, 52, swept entire shelves of clothing into tinfoil-lined bags designed to avoid detection by electronic surveillance. Then, with the help of two accomplices, Figueroa rearranged the shelves so nothing looked amiss.

By day's end, the gang of shoplifters had stolen enough merchandise from Twin Cities malls to fill a small gymnasium.
They work in groups, with professional precision, and the scores can be high. It's not the stores that suffer, it all of us, because the stores will pass the costs along in the form of higher prices.

Police are increasingly referring the cases to federal law enforcement officials because the crimes cross multiple jurisdictions and often involve the sale of stolen merchandise on the Internet.

In Roseville, police are investigating a 20-person shoplifting ring that, investigators estimate, stole more than $250,000 in goods from Best Buy and other electronics stores, primarily by using stolen credit card numbers and fake IDs. Police believe the group sold much of the merchandise online and used the money to buy methamphetamine.

Bloomington police last month arrested a group that they say used counterfeit credit cards to steal about $10,000 in goods and gift cards at the Mall of America. Police believe that group might have been involved in more than $400,000 in thefts at malls and shopping centers nationwide.
That's $400,000 from one known group.

Fortunately, mall security and law enforcement are stepping up their efforts to make life difficult for the criminals:

In Minneapolis, the Retailers Protection Association operates one of the largest crime databases in the Midwest. The database contains detailed descriptions of recent crimes, including the methods used and types of products stolen. Digital images of suspects and security camera footage can be posted, allowing retailers to identify repeat criminals or patterns of behavior.

But police say alert employees remain the best weapon against organized theft because even veteran shoplifters have difficulty behaving like regular shoppers.
It's interesting how crime prevention can sometimes fall back on old-fashioned common sense. Yet the criminals are always trying to advance their trade:

Figueroa's group is more typical. Video surveillance footage shows him and his accomplices moving casually from store to store in Southdale, carrying tinfoil-lined bags bearing the names of major retail chains, such as J.C. Penney. In a Gap, one of Figueroa's female accomplices helped to shield them from view by raising dresses and sweaters above her head, as if to take a closer look at the clothes.

When Edina police arrested the group at a Travelodge in Bloomington, they found boxes of merchandise packed for shipment. In the hotel room was a carefully itemized notebook detailing everything that had been stolen along with the prices.

"Shoplifters are a lot more sophisticated than they used to be," said Deshler, of the Edina Police Department's retail crimes unit. "They approach this as a business and getting popped by the cops is an occupational hazard."
We know what the solution is: to put these people away for a lon time. Naturally, the problem is that we don't:

Even when shoplifters are caught and convicted, the punishment can be fleeting. Shoplifting, even on a grand scale, often results in punishment of a few nights to a few months in jail, police say.

Figueroa and his two accomplices, Yamilit Cordova Jimenes, 35, and Jose Aponte, 29, pleaded guilty last April to felony theft. A judge sentenced them to two months in the Hennepin County jail and then turned them over to federal immigration officials. The three claimed to be from New Jersey, but immigration authorities believed they might have entered the country illegally. Hennepin County prosecutors said they were unsure of the outcome of the immigration case.

"I suspect they'll come back" to the Twin Cities, Deshler said. "But next time, we'll be ready."
Illegal immigrants? But we're to understand that illegal aliens only contribute to our economy. How could it be that there are criminals aomong them? And why wouldn't they come back? They only received a slap on the wrist.

What are you going to do about this problem, Hennepin County attorney Amy Klobuchar?