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Sharing information and insights on identifying and apprehending shoplifters are, from left, Brad Dahn, owner of Park Ace Hardward; Darlene Hildebrandt, manager of L&M Supply; Park Rapids police chief Terry Eilers and Pete Meggers, Walmart security specialist. (Jean Ruzicka / Enterprise)

Area merchants address shoplifting prevention, apprehension

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Park Rapids Enterprise
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Park Rapids Minnesota PO Box 111 56470

Park Rapids area merchants arrived in number to gain and share insights on apprehending and preventing shoplifters at a recent workshop held on the subject.

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The forum was at the suggestion of Park Ace Hardware storeowner Brad Dahn, who strongly advocated drafting a store policy. "If you don't, you could get in more trouble than the shoplifter."

He suggested merchants compare notes. "We're dealing with the same people," he said of shoplifters. "If we work together it will be surprising what we find out."

Walmart security specialist Pete Meggers recommended chain-calling businesses when shoplifters are sighted.

"Some travel from town to town," Park Rapids police chief Terry Eilers said.

Hubbard County attorney Don Dearstyne stressed every business owner is affected by shoplifting and advocated implementing video surveillance monitors. "It's not that expensive anymore."

"I'd like to see a video cameras at tills in every store, Eilers said. He suggested the camera sit at an angle so faces, not tops of heads, can be seen. "You can buy cameras the size of buttons. It really helps," he said of apprehending and prosecuting shoplifters.

"And employees, Dearstyne added. "They are not all trustworthy."

Dearstyne recommends implementing a policy to retain the videos for at least 90 days.

He suggests store personnel verify identification with every check and write the driver's license number and phone number on the check. "The more information, the better."

"If a person seems hesitant when you ask for information, check on it," Eilers said. Sometimes it's a group effort, he said, ostensibly to avoid being charged. "One person signs the check; another fills it out."

When a bad check has been written, it can be up to a year before the defendant arrives in court, Dearstyne said.

"You can't prove it to the jury," he said. "There is no evidence."

Dearstyne estimates 80 percent of the cases are settled out of court via a plea.

Eilers said employees often take a lackadaisical approach to the matter, officers hearing "I'm too busy. Or it's not my money.

"Make sure employees take ownership," Eilers said. "Get the employees to be part of the system."

"Our goal is restitution," Dearstyne said. "That is more important than jail. Jail is an alternative, but I can't guarantee restitution will be paid."

Dearstyne said there has been a change in the court system. Those who do not pay restitution can be brought back to court on a violation of probation.

Dick Rutherford asked if a list of names of convicted shoplifters could be posted in stores.

It's not against the law, Dearstyne said. A list can be posted at the register. And merchants have the right to deny a check. Credit and debit cards actually save businesses money, he said.

Stores can aggregate bad checks for the complaint, Dearstyne said. "We will lower the charges if the defendant pays restitution."

Businesses may send out a notice of demand (a draft of which can be found on the Internet) before pursuing legal action. If the matter is not resolved, it will be turned over to a prosecutor, the letter states.

The benefit of a collection agency, however, is that the matter then goes on record.

Dahn said if the amount is small - $20 or $30 - he calls the person, explaining he will waive the fee if he/she comes in to pay. "I get results from phone calls."

"I have dealt with some very, very good shoplifters," Meggers said. That includes a cashier who used her toes to take money.

"I've seen people mid-aisle filling their bags; others are hard to catch," he said.

Certain groups will target new Walmarts because they know the new employees lack the savvy to identify shoplifters.

"Unbelievable distractions" are sometimes employed, Meggers said. A person will ask a number of questions while another fills a basket with merchandise.

Elements to watch for are someone walking quickly, large bags or backpacks.

The new environmentally friendly reusable bags have proven to be a boon to shoplifters, Eilers said.

Meggers stressed having a written policy is vital when approaching a shoplifter. "There are guidelines to follow.

"Make 100 percent sure," he said of selected and concealed merchandise. "Once it's concealed, don't lose sight of them.

"Determine the last point of sale," he advises, beyond the register or outside.

"Approach them with respect," Meggers said, suggesting, 'I need to talk to you about unpaid merchandise.'" He often calls the police before making an apprehension.

"It's best to ask them to come back into the store," Eilers said. "Take them to a confined space," he recommends. "Some will argue, cause a scene."

"If they're combative, let them go," Dearstyne said, "but get a description.

"Age and socio-economic status has nothing to do with shoplifting," Dearstyne said, citing a millionaire in Grand Forks who stole a tape measure.

"Are there consequences for asking to see what's in a bag?" a merchant asked.

"I can't see an attorney taking the case," Dearstyne said.

"That's where a policy comes into place," Eilers said. A written policy does not need to be posted for public viewing.

Dearstyne advocates drafting a policy based on common sense. "Is $5 worth it?" Storeowners make the decision on prosecution, he said. As an alternative to prosecution, merchants can implement a "no trespass" order on parties.

"I let people walk when I'm 95 percent sure," Meggers said. "Or I'll be looking for another job," he said of legal ramifications. "Walmart's a big target," he said of lawsuits. "We lose $10,000 on legal fees" (for a single case.)

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Jean Ruzicka
(218) 732-3364
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