Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Local News

October 1, 2012

Police: Shoplifting on the rise

PRINCETON — Sometimes they try to steal razor blades. In other instances, they pocket computer games or DVDs, or they tear tags off clothes and try to leave the store. Shoplifting is a common crime, but it has become even more common during the past month in Mercer County and the surrounding area.

Local law enforcement agencies have become used to getting more calls about shoplifters. The number of calls about people trying to leave stores without paying for merchandise increased recently, said Sgt. D.W. Miller of the West Virginia State Police detachment near Princeton.

“I don’t know what’s caused it, but it has increased during the last three weeks to a month,” Miller said. “We don’t know whether it’s attributed to the economy or drug related, but we have definitely seen more. I’d say we have had 12 to 15 in the last month. This time of year we normally see two a month.”

Shoplifters will take whatever they think they can get out of a store, Miller said.

“There’s no rhyme or reason to it. They just get whatever they can get,” Miller said.

More experienced shoplifters will try to get security tags off electronic merchandise, but others will take tags off clothes and attempt to leave the store, he said.

First-time shoplifters are ticketed while repeat offenders are arrested, but the first-time offenders could pay a stiff fine if they decided to be ambitious and steal some expensive merchandise.

“The fine is generally 10 times the cost of the merchandise you were attempting to steal,” Miller said.

Mercer County Sheriff Don Meadows did not have any statistics immediately at hand, but he knew that the deputies were handling more shoplifting cases.

“It seems that in the last couple of months, it’s gone up quite a bit,” Meadows said.

The shoplifters have been targeting electronics, but they have also been stealing items such as razor blades, Meadows said.

Razor blades are among the “hot” items shoplifters steal because they are small, easy to conceal, and easy to sell, said Lt. Joe Parks of the Mercer County Sheriff’s Department. Some brands of razors sell for $18 to $25 a box, and a shoplifter will sell them for $10. Parks knew of stores that have started selling such items from behind the counter to deter shoplifters.

A troubled economy and the region’s drug problem are among the factors motivating shoplifters, Parks said. Like other crimes, shoplifting comes in waves. Law enforcement agencies will see a series of burglaries followed by car break-ins and other crimes.

“Criminals will try anything,” he said. “They’ve got to have their money. The long and short of it is that people are desperate for money on a daily basis.”

And many times, this desperation for cash is fueled by a drug addiction, Parks added.

Across the state line in Tazewell County, Va., police are seeing more shoplifting cases, too. In at least one case, the suspect tried to cash in on some merchandise without taking it from the store, said Sheriff Brian Hieatt.

“One of the last ones we had was a weed eater,” he said of goods that suspects have tried to turn into cash. The man in question took the weed eater from the store’s lawn and garden section, carried it around, and then tried to “return it” at the customer service desk in exchange for cash or store credit.

“They will say that they don’t have the receipt or it was a gift,” Hieatt said.

More stores are hiring loss-prevention people — sometimes off-duty deputies and other officers — to prevent shoplifting. Hieatt saw another reason behind the thefts besides economic hardship and drug addiction.

“I just think there’s a lack of a work ethic,” he said. “They think it’s easier to walk in, swipe a weed eater, and go to customer service than work.”

Back in Mercer County, Chief P.V. Powell of the Princeton Police Department said local officers are seeing more shoplifting. In Princeton, the reason for the rise may be the fact that more officers who are working as security guards while off duty are catching more shoplifters in the act, he said.

Like the merchandise and property stolen during burglaries and other crimes, the suspects try to pawn it or sell it for cash, or trade it for pills, Powell said.

In nearby Bluefield, strings of shoplifting cases come and go, said Chief J.W. Wilson of the Bluefield Police Department.

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see an increase in the next few months, but we haven’t seen one yet,” Wilson said.

— Contact Greg Jordan at gjordan@bdtonline.com

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