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Shoplifters gaining on merchants

It’s been a tough summer for shopkeepers in Laguna Beach.

Shop owners in the downtown area said they are experiencing problems with shoplifting unlike they have seen before.

Laura Downing, who owns the Laura Downing Boutique on Forest Avenue, said shoplifters have hit her shop more this summer than any season she can remember in the past.

She was recently hit twice in one week — both incidents involving high-end merchandise — causing her about $1,000 in losses.

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“I’ve been in the business for 18 years and I’ve never seen such a blatant problem,” Downing said.

She is so frustrated with her losses that, after hearing about similar problems from other stores in the village area, she wrote a letter to the chief of police.

“I’ve never felt so violated before,” Downing wrote.

Other business owners feel the same.

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The police aren’t seeing the same increase in shoplifting, however.

Laguna Beach Police Chief Michael Sellers said the department is unaware of the shoplifting problem being any worse than it would normally be during the summer tourist season. According to Sellers, the police have only responded to four incidents of shoplifting in the village area since Aug. 1.

“There is no crime spree,” Sellers said.

If there are increased incidents of theft, then the police aren’t being called in on all of them, Sellers said.

“We can’t respond to any call we didn’t receive.”

Miller said stopping retail crime isn’t as easy as just calling the police, especially when there are no witnesses.

“You can’t prosecute them unless you can hold them,” Miller said.

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Downing said she called the police when she found some of her high-end merchandise missing, but was told that without a description of a suspect, there was no need to fill out a report.

Many of those who have been victimized by shoplifters believe that while all retail stores experience losses from individual pilferers, much of the crime they are experiencing this summer is organized and executed by groups — groups with shoplifting experience.

Thieves use various techniques from the basic snatch-and-run to orchestrated hits involving many people.

Heidi Miller, owner of Tight Assets boutique, said she tried to chase down a female she’d caught shoplifting only to be thwarted by an accomplice standing outside the door to block Miller’s path.

Miller said shoplifting teams use “smoke and mirrors” to get away with planned heists. She said a group will come in and, while one or two members of the group are distracting store employees, another is stealing merchandise.

Will Magner, of Mr. Bones Cigar Shop, said the distraction technique has been used for years, and when only one or two employees are working in the store, it’s difficult to keep an eye on everybody.

“It’s actually a group effort, it’s a lot like magicians,” Magner said.

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Quiksilver Boardrider’s Club Store Manager Alycia Herbert said her store has been hit repeatedly over the last two months.

About $1,000 worth of shirts were stolen in one night last week.

In July, a man was caught attempting to smuggle dozens of shorts out of the store in a “booster” bag designed to hide stolen merchandise.

Employees at the store said stacks of board shorts have disappeared from display tables. Herbert said she suspects the stolen merchandise is being sold at swap meets.

“I’ve never had this problem before, ever,” said Herbert, who has been at the store for 14 years.

Herbert has decided to be proactive in cutting down on her store’s losses. She said she is keeping more staff on the floor and encouraging them to be aggressive on sales. It’s hard to steal when there’s a store employee following someone around offering help, though the extra staff is pushing up her payroll costs.

Miller encourages her employees to do the same thing. She said it’s often apparent someone is a shoplifter when they are approached by an employee and decline an offer of help.

“Obviously they don’t need your help, they’re stealing,” Miller said.

That practice is also recommended to shop owners by Sellers.

“Make sure that your employees are alert and paying attention,” Sellers advises shopkeepers.

Miller and Downing both said they believe a lack of police presence on the street in the village area may have something to do with their increased losses.

Sellers acknowledges the department has many vacancies, but said the street patrol is fully staffed, with the same amount of officers always on street patrol. Even Sellers regularly walks a beat downtown.

Laguna Beach Police Sgt. Darin Lenyi said officers have had their summer vacation — which is usually two weeks — cut to one week. Some on the staff are working overtime to fill the void and ensure the same amount of officers are always on the street.

“We’ve been very vigilant in putting out the foot patrol, from the police chief to patrolman,” Sellers said.

Sellers is actively trying to fill the department’s empty slots, going so far as to visit police academies and pitch Laguna’s department to soon-to-be officers.

“We’re aggressively recruiting to fill our spots,” Sellers said.

Miller and Herbert said they both hope to cut their losses by fully prosecuting anyone they catch.

“When they get away with it once, they keep coming back,” Miller said.

Do Laguna Beach police have enough presence in commercial areas? Write us at P.O. Box 248, Laguna Beach, CA, 92652; e-mail us at coastlinepilot@latimes.com or fax us at (949) 494-8979. Please give us your name, home address and phone number for verification purposes only.


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