Here is a story that Lou was pictured for.

Hey guys…check it out. Here’s another picture of Lou at work. The story is about a retail coalition where retail outlets talk about frauds and thefts and come up with ideas and share information.
Lou at work.

And here is the story that came with the story.

Small groups, usually women, have been visiting area stores. Often, one or two create a distraction, allowing a third to stick a bottle of alcohol in an oversized handbag.

Each time, they’re after pricey liquor such as Grey Goose vodka and Hennessy cognac.

In response, some retailers have ordered locking cases for their booze. But mostly, they’re sharing details — including images captured by security cameras — with colleagues at other stores and in law enforcement in order to help them be on the alert and catch the suspected crooks.

Retailers — from national chains as well as locally owned stores — are teaming up with law enforcement agencies from Douglas and Sarpy Counties to curb the retail crime that ends up costing all of us more at the checkout lane.

Store officials and officers said the coordination is paying off with faster case closure.

“We’re really trying to be more effective,” said Omaha Police Sgt. Erin Dumont of the prevention programs unit. “How can we help them? How can they help us?”

Sharing is the key, she said. Often, such as with the recent alcohol thefts, retail criminals will use the same tactic at each store they hit. One store’s camera may capture a better view than another’s and combine to build a stronger case. Sometimes, the suspects wear the same clothes each time. Distinctive jackets recently led to details being shared about another shoplifting pair.

Knowing who’s making the rounds and a little something about them, Dumont said, can allow a store’s loss-prevention staff to act more quickly when a suspected thief is in the act. Coordination also can lead to more serious charges when suspects are apprehended.

Dumont said efforts like the metro-area retail coalition have been tried before, but staff turnover made it tough to keep together. This time, the coalition has met monthly for more than a year and is going strong with input from nearly a dozen stores and at least four law enforcement agencies.

“Now we know the cases are related instead of isolated,” said Sarah Newsome, a loss-prevention investigation specialist for area Target stores. “We have the ability to coordinate with the other businesses to close cases faster.”

Those involved agree organized retail crime is a problem in the metro area and that its impact is growing.

Newsome said one of the challenges the retail coalition faced early on was a misperception by some businesses here about the need for loss prevention.

“Some had the perception that ‘Oh, this is Omaha. That doesn’t happen here,’” she said. “It does happen here.”

The most recent National Retail Federation research suggests that $33.5 billion in merchandise was stolen in 2009. In the industry, that loss is known as “shrink.”

According to the federation, about 35 percent of retail shrink was due to shoplifting by concealment and fraud, and an additional 43 percent was linked to theft by employees.

To prevent and catch employee theft, most retailers have employees go through gates that would detect stolen merchandise and have security cameras on employee areas.

“The most concern for external theft is shoplifting by opportunists. There are also more professional ‘boosters’ stealing large quantities for the purpose of resale,” said Joe LaRocca, vice president of loss prevention for the National Retail Federation.

The federation defines organized retail crime as groups of people working together to steal large quantities of merchandise and convert it through resale into cash or drugs. Those rings operate nationwide, often hitting the same stores in several states on the same day.

Federal and state laws have been passed in recent years to address organized retail crime. Nebraska and Iowa are not among the 20 states noted by the federation to have such laws, but some changes in Nebraska have increased penalties for certain acts that show intent to steal.

Brad Ivener, recovery manager for the Nebraska Furniture Mart, said among the three stores in Omaha, Kansas City and Des Moines, suspected fraud or theft is noticed, on average, every other day.

Fraud includes a stolen credit card used to pay for merchandise, items returned without a receipt and forged checks.

At its most recent meeting, the retail coalition, representing eight stores and three law enforcement agencies, talked over bagels and coffee, trading stories about visits from individual repeat thieves and warning about organized rings working in the area.

Whether it’s kids trying to steal a video game for the thrill or gangs of people snaring headphones worth several hundred dollars for resale or pawn, it’s handled just as seriously at Nebraska Furniture Mart.

“We’ll stop ’em for a pop,” said the mart’s Ron King. “We prosecute everybody. Once there is concealment, we make the stop.”

The mart’s control room — accessed through two locked doors requiring a code to enter — features 18 screens, each of which is split to show 16 views. Together they monitor more than 200 cameras that track what’s happening in every square foot of the property, from the spacious warehouses to zoomed-in views of tiny headphones in the electronics department.

Lou Costanzo thinks of his job like fishing, requiring patience to monitor the electronics floor and other areas from the control center. If he sees someone try to conceal an item, he alerts the security team. A team member approaches the individual and keeps him from leaving the store, with some amount of force if necessary.

If a stop is made, Costanzo is there to tell law enforcement everything he saw and to provide video evidence.

“If they’re stealing, we don’t want them back,” he said.

Large bulletin boards in the control room are filled with the photos of those caught in the act at the store. Each of the several hundred individuals have been banned from the store. If they come back, they’re arrested for trespassing, King said.

The youngest of those was six when he was stopped with two family members who’d convinced him to carry something for them. Another man on the wall was sent to jail for five years and returned wearing the same jacket he’d been caught in the first time, King recalled.

“It’s amazing what people try,” he said with a chuckle.

Not only does the retail coalition allow stores to share experiences with suspected and convicted criminals who have hit their stores, Ivener said, but it’s also allowing them to share tips on how to protect products and to build trust. That in turn has increased the amount of help they offer one another.

Now, he said, it’s more common for Nebraska Furniture Mart to use its cameras to monitor a suspected thief who is leaving Lowe’s or Kohl’s. The cameras will reach to the Best Buy parking lot across Dodge Street.

“It’s a really good thing for all of our customers,” Ivener said. “This is the best way to protect our customers from being victimized and to keep our costs down.”

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