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Gumshoe finds who’s got sticky fingers

Marketplace Staff Oct 19, 2009

Gumshoe finds who’s got sticky fingers

Marketplace Staff Oct 19, 2009


Kai Ryssdal: Steve Henn was just telling us about Kroll Associates, a consulting firm that’s trying to branch out into the credit-rating business — examining how risky big complicated corporate debt can be. Truth is, though, that most investigations happen on a far smaller scale. One detective at a time, chasing down sources, trying to find the answers. For months we have been tracking the ripple effects of this recession, trying to find out how it’s changing behaviors. So we put in a call to a private eye and a radio reporter down in Nashville, Tenn.

Thomas H. Humphreys: You’ve reached Thomas H. Humphreys of FIND Investigations. Leave a message and we’ll call you back. Beeeep.

RYSSDAL: Thomas, Kai Ryssdal at Marketplace, here. I’ve got a question for you. We’ve been wondering whether there’s been an uptick in shoplifting in a down economy. What are you hearing?

I’ll see what I can find out.

You try to go into a new case with an open mind. But you always have a preconceived notion. I figure, times are tough. So I head to a gritty blue-collar neighborhood in East Nashville, thinking, folks on the lower rungs are the first to feel the pangs of real need.

Gallatin Road stabs north out of downtown, a potholed ribbon of blight. Puddles of liquid heat reflect pawn shops and liquor stores with bars on the windows. Bleary-eyed men with nowhere to go look to brown paper bags for comfort and meaning.

I check in with one of my contacts: Jason Kim. He runs Young’s Fashion. He’s decorated the front of his store with photos of shoplifters caught in the act. I ask him if he’s seen more of this kind of thing lately.

JASON KIM: Definitely! I mean, we had a lot more cases of shoplifting in our store. One reason is they don’t have any money in their pocket, and they want new clothing or, you know, new things for themselves.

Interesting. I came here thinking I’d find desperate people pinching things they need. But Jason Kim uses the word “want.” Not “need.”

I turn to my cop buddy, Po Cheng. He’s been making the rounds on this stretch of mean streets for years. I roll up to his patrol car in a grocery store parking lot, hoping to get a little perspective. Po always puts his own spin on things.

PO CHENG: Well, obviously ’cause people don’t have as much money. And what little money they do have, they’re not willing to give up cable, or the three cell phones that they have, and they figure that, well, they’re just gonna steal these things as opposed to actually paying for them. ‘Cause they’re not willing to give up some of the luxuries of their life.

Sometimes I wonder whether Po’s police work has made him contemptuously distrustful of human nature. Po claims he’s nabbing the same old guys nicking the same old things.

I call up Joe LaRocca at the National Retail Federation. He’s their loss prevention guy, and he says he’s spotting the same trend.

JOE LaROCCA: We’re not seeing huge spikes in people stealing out of need. We still see consumers stealing high-end designer goods.

LaRocca says shoplifting is up 5 to 15 percent nationwide since last year. It’s not that there are more shoplifters. It’s the usual suspects. They’re just pilfering more. See, the economic slump has created an opportunity.

LaROCCA: Consumers have been looking in alternate places to buy lower-priced goods, and that’s fueled professional criminal groups that are stealing large quantities of merchandise, are trying to fill that demand.

These crews are boosting expensive things they can fence on the street: eyeglass frames, designer handbags, and…

SCOTT RYAN: Go to the flea market and check out who’s selling baby formula.

That’s Lieutenant Scott Ryan, Hendersonville PD. This sleepy upscale suburb has witnessed a 20 percent spike in professional snatch-and-grabs in the past year.

RYAN: Whenever you’re paying maybe upwards of $20 for a can of formula in a store, it’s pretty easy to sell at a flea market for $8 to $10 a can. And it’s quick cash. It’s quick profit for people. And they’re not stealing it to provide for their family, they’re stealing it because it’s a way to make a living at the flea market.

It seems I ascribe motives to people, if not noble, at least justifiable. But every time I think I know what a case is going to turn up, this job compels me to cynicism. Sure, the economy affects petty thievery, but this swag isn’t going to the homes of the needy. It’s mostly being sold online or on the street, lining the pockets of the greedy.

From the files of FIND Investigations, I’m Nashville private investigator Thomas H. Humphreys for Marketplace.

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