Exchanges on Alert for Thieves as Shopping Season Kicks into High Gear

Loss-prevention specialist John Keith zooms in on a shopper who has picked up an item at Kadena Air Base's exchange. (Robert Dedeaux/U.S. Army)

CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — It’s just another sleepy morning at Kadena Air Base’s sprawling exchange, and retired Marine John Keith sits behind a humming console of 10 screens with access to 112 cameras that cover the department store inside and out.

Keith — who works in Army and Air Force Exchange Service loss prevention at the Kadena store — watches intently as a pair of uniformed airmen pop in to grab an item before heading back to work. A young woman shops for cosmetics, leisurely looking in the mirror as she tests samples. An older woman strolls the aisles pushing a young child in a stroller.

Little do they know, Keith is watching their every move.

He zooms in on the woman testing the cosmetics, looking for “selection” of an item and “concealment.” As she picks up an item, he moves in even closer with the camera.

He’s able to relax as she puts the item back on the shelf and walks away. Then he turns to watch the woman pushing the carriage.

“This lady right here, she’s walking through the cosmetics, she has a baby carriage,” Keith said. “There’s so many places to stick things.”

Keith and his colleagues have good reason to be so distrusting as they prepare for the surge of holiday shoppers that starts on Black Friday and continues through Christmas.

Last year,  AAFES recorded more than 3,700 shoplifting incidents worldwide, involving about $417,750 worth of merchandise, according to an Exchange service spokesman, Judd Anstey.  Of those incidents, 274 occurred at stores in the Pacific.

That represents a sharp drop over shoplifting cases of a few years ago. In 2007 about 7,000 shoppers were detained worldwide, he said. Last year the number dropped to fewer than 4,000.

With sales in the holiday season expected to soar, Keith and the rest of his team will be manning the floor and watching the screens for the rest of the year to try to bring down those numbers even lower.

“Our main charge is to get out there and serve the servicemen and their dependents,” said Allen Wykle, the Pacific region’s loss prevention manager. “If you’re out there and you’re wanting to shoplift, we’re going to catch you and we don’t want that to happen.

“Around the holiday season, people really get desperate,” Wykle said. “Families want to make sure their families have the best Christmas and sometimes cheat to get those kids those presents, so it’s very unfortunate.”

The thieves come in all shapes and sizes, span ages and nationalities and have different methods for stealing and even the reasons behind it.

All shapes, sizes

Keith has loss prevention down to a science.

Upon his arrival at work each morning, he sets up several cameras on the items that inventory tells him are stolen the most, such as cosmetics, electronics and luxury goods. If someone enters that department, he watches them intently, able to zoom in close enough to virtually see skin blemishes.

“This season, there’s more people stealing for themselves because they’re saving their money to buy for their loved ones for the holidays,” he said. “I don’t catch [a shoplifter] every day. It’s actually pretty hard, but they say, statistically, one out of every 11 people who walk up the stairs attempts to steal something” _ an industry yardstick which Antsey says is higher than among AAFES shoppers.

In one week earlier this month, loss prevention caught a woman at the Camp Foster exchange store trying to swipe $2,000 worth of items because the electronic tagging system that alerts staff when someone walks out with a pricier item was temporarily down.

Other notable larceny attempts in recent years include:

  • A woman who stole a $4 bracelet after spending a couple hundred dollars at the store.
  • A high school student from Yokota who stole shoes while visiting Okinawa only to be caught upon his return home.
  • Kids who have tried to steal cold medicine or dust-off spray to get high.
  • A servicewoman who walked around the Camp Foster exchange for six hours, dressing her baby in stolen goods, stuffing items into the stroller, even feeding her baby with a stolen bottle. Total price tag: $1,600.

Rank and station doesn’t enter into it. During his career in loss prevention, Wykle has seen diplomatic personnel and even an undersecretary of the Army caught shoplifting.

Employees have to be watched, too. Keith said they sometimes steal, show up late, fraudulently fill out time cards or low charge their friends.

Who steals depends on the time of day, he said. In the morning, it’s mostly spouses who have just dropped off their children at school. It switches to servicemembers and high school students around lunchtime and back to spouses after lunch. After 4 p.m., it is everybody.

Keith has seen so much theft in the 14 months he has been poring over screens at Okinawa’s exchanges that he has lost some faith in people.

“Not all bandits wear a ski mask,” Keith said.

“I’ve seen 6-year-old kids to 86-year-old old ladies and everyone in between; everyone steals. And if you don’t catch them today, they’ll be back, and you’ll get them tomorrow.”

After someone is caught stealing, Keith or a manager will approach the person and inform them that there is a discrepancy that needs to be addressed. They then bring them into the security office and contact military police, who file larceny charges.

Keith said they do not use physical force to restrain someone who has been caught. The video means there’s no need; it can then be turned over to a school, a command or law enforcement.

Careers at risk 

The consequences for a servicemember can be devastating — even if it’s a dependent who steals, Keith said. The servicemember can also be charged with the theft.

Dependents have been barred from base for 10 years, which in some cases led to the destruction of their families through divorce or separation.

Service members who steal can be prosecuted and discharged, Wykle said. In addition, if the merchandise is open or broken, the thief or their family has to purchase it and pay a restocking fee of $200.

The pain caused by shoplifting doesn’t end there, Wykle said. A stolen item might remain out of stock for long periods of time.

Merchandise is automatically reordered when it gets down to a certain level because sales are registered in a computer. But it might be a while before an exchange realizes stock of a stolen item is running low, so the general population of servicemembers might be forced to go without.

The community also suffers because exchange earnings support morale, welfare and recreation installation programs. The exchanges have contributed more than $2.4 billion to military quality-of-life programs in the past 10 years.

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