More shoppers take five-fingered discount

BY ABE TEKIPPE | JUNE 24, 2009 7:21 AM

Retailers across the United States are reporting a spike in shoplifting, a trend reflected in local statistics.

Iowa City police records indicate the department is on track for a five-year high. From January to May 2008, there were 73 reported incidents of shoplifting. During the same period this year, there were 123, a 68.5 percent increase.

“As the general economy deteriorates, I might expect those numbers to increase,” Iowa City police Sgt. Troy Kelsay said.

According to a Retail Industry Leaders Association survey published in December 2008, economic pressures — such as those brought on by the recession — can be a driving force when it comes to shoplifting.

Donald Black, a UI professor of psychiatry, said he believed there was a relationship between the poor economy and the spike in shoplifting.

“I’ve seen patients at the hospital who tell me that they’ve shoplifted recently in part because they needed something and had no income,” said Black, whose research centers on behavioral addictions.

As further indication of the economic factor, he said, most shoplifters are opportunistic and do not steal on a regular basis. The exceptions are kleptomaniacs, who impulsively steal merchandise they may even be able to afford — and sometimes take items they don’t need or want.

Kleptomaniacs make up a “small subset” of shoplifters, Black said.

Unlike the Iowa City police, the Coralville police are heading toward a five-year low in such crimes, according to police records.

But shoplifting is up elsewhere in Iowa. In West Des Moines — home of Jordan Creek Town Center, the largest shopping complex in Iowa — incidents of shoplifting rose from 399 in 2007 to 567 in 2008. Aside from the economy, Alice Wisner, a crime analyst for the West Des Moines police, attributes the jump to new businesses opening their doors.

With stores implementing improved security measures, authorities are also catching more shoplifters in the act, Wisner said. For example, a change in Scheels’ shoplifting policy contributed to the dramatic rise in the number of reported shoplifting cases throughout the West Des Moines community from 2007 to 2008.

According to the December 2008 Retail Industry Leaders Association survey, 84 percent of 52 national retailers surveyed said they experienced an increase in opportunistic shoplifting from the beginning of the economic downturn to the end of 2008. A follow-up survey published last month shows the trend has persisted into 2009.

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