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Security footage was able to capture four hooded men who stole $27,000 worth of laptops and other gadgets from the Apple Store in Fashion Fair Mall. The men are still at large and police think they have been conducting similar robberies. Screen capture from Apple Store Footage via YouTube.

published on August 29, 2018 - 2:07 PM
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It took only minutes for four men to steal $27,000 worth of gadgets in broad daylight from the Apple Store in Fresno on July 7.

It took a similar amount of time for three women to steal $17,000 worth of leggings from Lululemon in Fig Garden Village two weeks later in the same fashion.

Two days later, they returned to Lululemon for more.

Since this article was published in print on Aug. 17, there was another Apple Store robbery in Walnut Creek and another in Ventura County, where shoppers held the suspects until police arrived. Police have not released whether those crimes were related to the one in Fresno.

While these brazen, big-ticket losses may have made national news, business owners still have to watch out for small-scale crimes. With the changes Proposition 47 made to the criminal justice system in 2014, grocery and hardware store owners said they have seen a rise in theft, but the measures they take to deter “external shrink” — theft by the public, in retailer jargon — are paying for themselves.

“We’re probably getting hit every single day and we just don’t know it,” said Ian Williams, store manager at Fresno Ag & Hardware.

Among other things, increases in basic shoplifting are directly to due to the decrease in penalties, according to Steven Wright, assistant district attorney for Fresno County.

Proposition 47 was approved by voters in 2014 to turn non-violent drug and theft crimes worth below $950 from felonies into misdemeanors. Before, the district attorneys had discretion over those charges, according to Wright.

“It’s not even a revolving door,” Wright said. “They’re not even ending up in jail. There’s nothing to stop this cycle of criminality.”

When Maricela Macedo, manager at State Foods Supermarket in Sanger, calls the police about criminals caught stealing, all police can do is fill out what is called a PC-837 form for a private person arrest.

“I don’t think it’s getting better,” Macedo said. “Unfortunately the people that are stealing from us have already been through the judicial system.”

The other thing police can do is fill out a PC-602 citation for trespassing. The criminal is then not allowed to be in the store for 30 days, but after that, storeowners can do nothing.

What’s more, criminals often know the law and what it takes to stay under the $950 threshold for felony charges.

“When Prop 47 did get passed, they knew exactly how much they could steal without facing serious time or getting in trouble,” Williams said.

Following the robberies at Apple and Lululemon, Fresno Police contracted with those companies to provide security in the form of off-duty officers. Officers will show up in uniform with a squad car for just over $58 an hour. They can only make arrests as private citizens, but they have access to police communications, and the mere sight of an officer is a major deterrent. But the price of physical security can be expensive.

Lisa Guzman at National Hardware in Pinedale thinks theft has caused almost $5,000 in losses each year.

Hardware stores are places criminals often target because of big-ticket items, Williams said, but efforts to counter loss have been successful. Williams wouldn’t comment on how much is lost, but says it is an expense for which he has to plan. The biggest deterrent is customer service.

He trains his employee to “acknowledge everyone coming in the door, whether they’re here to shop or steal.”

“If you walk up to somebody if they’re there to steal, they might think twice about it,” Williams said.

Beyond customer service, surveillance is a big factor.

Guzman installed 48 cameras around her store and yard at National Hardware a year or two ago, and they have paid for themselves.

When she is suspicious of someone, an employee will go to the back and start watching the camera. They will communicate through sign language about what is going on.

Guzman likes to have fun with the people coming in to steal.

One time, she recognized a man who had previously been in the store to steal torches. When she went up to him, she told the man he looked just like her cousin and wanted to show him a picture and instead showed him the footage of him stealing from her earlier. It seemed to work.

Surveillance technology has become prevalent and the image resolution has really improved, said Roy Hernandez, president of Geil Enterprises, Inc., which owns Valley Security & Alarm, among other businesses. A good camera can cost between $250-$500. Factors like low-light capabilities, lens types and ranges all play a part in getting usable images.

Signage is also important, according to Hernandez. Not only do people need to be told they are being watched, but business owners have to be careful about false advertising, Hernandez said.

If you are providing what someone might think as protection, such as a break-in in a parking lot, they might be counting on video to help catch or stop a crime.

“When it isn’t there, there can be accusations of false advertising,” he said.

Despite all the technology available, there’s no substitute for quality customer service and attentiveness, said Fresno Police Department Cpt. Burke Farrah. Farrah oversees the northwest district, where Lululemon is located.

“What most of these folks are looking for that are day-to-day shoplifters — even these organized rings— they’re looking for an opportunity to hit quickly when folks are disinterested,” Farrah said.

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