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Retailers' groups, FBI form national thefts database

The Baltimore Sun

Two major retail organizations and the Federal Bureau of Investigation will launch a national online database Monday to share information to fight organized retail theft, which costs the industry billions of dollars in stolen merchandise each year.

The Law Enforcement Retail Partnership Network (LERPnet) database represents a rare spirit of cooperation in the fiercely competitive retail industry and a significant partnership with law enforcement officials, who traditionally view retail crime as petty theft.

The database is a joint effort of the National Retail Federation and the Retail Industry Leaders Association, each of which initiated its own database last year.

About 35 retailers are participating, already logging more than 14,000 incidents. Some retailers include Macy's, Sears, Limited Brands, American Eagle Outfitters, Mervyn's and Beall's.

Most police departments and retailers haven't connected the dots between crimes until now, Joseph LaRocca, the NRF's vice president of loss prevention, said yesterday.

What's more, he said, retailers have been reluctant to share information with one another.

"We're now all going to be fishing from the same pond," he said, noting that, in time, the database will likely house hundreds of thousands of retail theft incidents nationwide.

Unlike average shoplifters who steal for their personal use, criminals involved in organized theft rings steal merchandise and resell the goods to flea markets, pawn shops or on the Internet. It costs the industry as much as $30 billion annually. The problem is growing, with shoppers paying almost 2 cents on every dollar to cover the cost of theft.

Retailers with stores in South Florida and across the nation are increasingly doing their own detective work. But retail theft incidents are reported separately to local police departments, who often are unaware of similar crimes in nearby areas outside their jurisdictions.

With LERPnet, retailers will be able to communicate with other companies and law enforcement about crimes occurring in their stores without compromising sensitive information. Companies can report the theft and include details about suspects, getaway vehicles, and identification numbers of stolen products, as well as photos and video footage. They also control what information is added and who can see that information in the network.

Law enforcement will not likely begin to use LERPnet until the data reaches a critical mass, said Brian Nadeau, supervisory special agent for the FBI's major theft unit in Washington.

Nevertheless, LERPnet will help law enforcement officials track, identify and apprehend organized crime groups, so that larger cases can be prosecuted, he said.

According to the NRF's 2006 Organized Retail Crime survey, 81 percent of retailers polled said they have been a victim of organized retail crime. Nearly half - 48 percent - also had seen an increase in organized retail crime activity in their stores.

Based on information collected so far, top cities for organized retail crime are Miami, New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Orlando, Fla., LaRocca said.

"Retailers are finally banding together to stop the bad guys," said Dan Doyle, vice president of loss prevention for Beall's. "LERPnet is going to be a tremendous help to us."

Jaclyn Giovis writes for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

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