Holiday shoppers might notice some changes this year. Along with heavier foot traffic, there will be a heavier police presence, and some of that is due to a spike in shoplifting cases.
"We have extra officers that we assigned to the malls and shopping centers," said 2nd Lt. William Arnest with the Fairfax County Police Department, who supervises a unit of officers who protect area shopping malls. "There was a decrease during the pandemic with people staying home, but shoplifting is now increasing."
The News4 I-Team analyzed shoplifting data and found Fairfax County had the most cases in the area last year with more than 4,000 incidents. That's among the 11,000 cases around the D.C. region in 2021.
Areas including Fairfax, Prince George's and Montgomery counties have seen an increase this year in the crime. Some of the incidents have turned dangerous.
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"The crimes I see are far more brazen. The level of resistance, the aggression that some use," Arnest said.
In October, a Metropolitan Police Department police report obtained by the I-Team reports someone "attempting to steal items" from a CVS in Southeast D.C. stabbed an employee in the neck as he tried to stop the suspect, sending that worker to the hospital.
Just this month, a security guard working at the Giant in Oxon Hill, Maryland, died after police say he confronted a shoplifter who pulled a gun from her backpack and shot him.
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"I'm still just trying to wake up from a really, really bad dream, you know," said Shaunte Tate, the wife of Willie Tate.
She said she knew his job came with risk, but she’s devastated to know he lost his life over something so trivial.
"If he knew that she needed help or that she was really hungry, he would have took her over to the restaurant, bought the food,” Tate said. “It didn’t have to go the way that it did at all."
That accused shoplifter also died when Tate returned fire.
"It's a very risky situation and it is problematic," said Mark Mathews of the National Retail Federation.
He told the I-Team retailers have seen an 80% increase in violence associated with organized retail crime since the pandemic.
"It's very difficult to ask your employees to step into harm's way, because not only are they endangering themselves if there is a weapon involved, they're endangering all the consumers who are in that store," said Mathews.
He said there are generally two types of shoplifting: a crime of opportunity where someone swipes something they want just at that moment and more organized theft involving a team of crooks that enter a store, grabbing handfuls of items.
"There's groups of organized retail theft that travel up and down the East Coast, stealing from different malls and shopping centers," Arnest said.
According to the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention, this crime costs stores more than $45 million a day.
It's become such a problem that some shops are taking desperate measures to crack down, turning to last resort solutions shoppers probably have noticed. Everything from laundry detergent, to deodorant, razor blades, electric toothbrushes and hand lotions gets locked up in cases. Customers who want those products must ask an employee to get them.
"Unfortunately, that has the side effect of really impairing the customer experience," said Joe Budano, an expert in loss prevention with Indyme Solutions.
He said whenever a retailer locks up merchandise, it can expect a 25% reduction in sales. His company is working with major retailers around the country testing smartphone technology that would allow customers to unlock the cases without any assistance.
"You walk up to the case and you see a touchscreen display here," he explained, showing the I-Team how it works. “We're asking you to tell us who you are, either through your cellphone, your loyalty card information, or using a retailer's app or even your face as a face ID. So, I'm going to enter my cellphone in there, and now I'm going to get a text message, I want to enter my code, and my case is unlocked."
Budano said his company also is looking at using the technology in other retail locations – like fitting rooms and locked restrooms to increase security.
So far, he said, in their testing, customers have been open to providing some information.
“Face ID is clearly the least popular, and it's viewed as a kind of an invasion of privacy,” he said. “But cellphone, loyalty card, retailer app, you know, in our survey data, we found that shoppers believe that retailers really more or less have that information already so that that value they're giving up as a legitimate shopper against this convenience is quite a good trade.”
He said hopefully this is just one tool that could help prevent shoplifting.
"What offenders are going to want identify themselves right before they steal, right?" he said.
Experts agree it's a tough crime to crack down on, and it's escalating.
"Retailers are really scrambling to adjust their store operations to thwart this new threat," Budano said.
Reported by Susan Hogan; produced by Rick Yarborough; shot by Steve Jones, Jeff Piper and Lance Ing; and edited by Steve Jones.