Holiday Season is ‘Harvest Time’ For Swindlers

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As the Detroit Free Press’ Oakland bureau crime reporter, I had to find evergreen stories when there wasn’t any major news. Here is one. 

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As gift-givers and bargain-hunters prepare for the shopping experience of the year, thieves are gearing up to cash in on the holiday spending spree. Police officers assigned to area malls say there’s a twist to the traditional holiday shoplifting and purse-snatching: Thieves seem to be targeting Social Security numbers, credit cards and driver’s licenses — so they, too, can go shopping. But with other people’s money.

“It used to be that people would carry out loads of clothes beneath a big jacket,” Troy Police Officer Kirk Linton said. “But now, they think, why do that when I can walk up to the mall gift-certificate counter, write a $1,000 fake check and get a bunch of gift certificates? And have the counterperson say, ‘Thank you.’ ”

The holidays make the shift in crime more apparent.

“This is harvest time,” said Erik Gordon, research director of the Retail Center at the University of Florida College of Business Administration. “This is a seasonal business for retailers and a big season for crooks, too.” He added: “This credit card fraud thing has just grown and grown and grown.”

Last year, shoplifters stole $8.4 billion of goods from retailers, while employees took $11.1 billion in items, according to the National Retail Federation. Yet the amount lost in credit schemes, which include false credit applications and bad checks, is difficult for experts to determine. The crimes are sometimes referred to as identity theft.

Major credit card companies won’t release their fraud statistics, and retailer associations say they don’t track the data. “Credit card companies don’t want to release that kind of information, but it is in the billions,” Gordon said.

Fighting the new wave of thefts are Troy Officers Linton and Jay Reynolds. Every day from noon to 9 p.m. they answer calls from mall security personnel and stores. They also work with U.S. Secret Service agents and U.S. Postal Service inspectors on a 2-year-old national mall-fraud task force. Their first line of defense is to try to educate store clerks about how they can fight fraud during the busiest sales season of the year. As lines get longer, they say, cashiers aren’t as careful about checking identification, comparing signatures and taking other measures to make sure of a shopper’s identity.

“In my 30 years of being a police officer, I never dreamed I would be doing this,” Reynolds said of his job, and how it increasingly involves investigating and preventing check scams and other fraud. “But in this computer age, this is what’s evolved. It’s very, very real,” he said.

Tuesday morning, the officers gave a 2-hour class to 10 Somerset Collection employees. They showed them the fake credit cards, checks and driver’s licenses they’ve collected. The workers who attended left enlightened, they said.

“I’ve been very lax lately in checking IDs,” said Tracy Richter of Sterling Heights, who manages the Aveda store at the Troy mall. And two Liz Claiborne store workers said that no matter how careful they are, it’s tough keeping an eye on everyone when a store is packed. Nola Schlam, the sales manager, said the presentation made her realize she had to think more like a thief.

“It’s kind of disheartening,” said Schlam of Madison Heights. “I’ve always been an honest person and it upsets me that I have to think like a person that does the fraud.”

But that’s exactly what clerks are being trained to do. For example, they are learning the magnetic strip on a credit card can be skimmed, meaning the data can be copied from one card to another and then be used to take money from an account. And that fake identification can look quite real.

Other towns with major malls also have assigned officers to patrol the corridors. Two Dearborn Police Department officers are assigned to Fairlane Town Center. Great Lakes Crossing has an office that Auburn Hills police and security officials share. And Waterford police have a mini-station at Summit Place mall. The officers who patrol malls say their efforts may not be visible to shoppers, but they’re making a difference by trying to keep problems in check.

Shopper Linda Hemak of Almont, 46, was at Somerset recently to return a purchase.

“I think about crime a lot,” Hemak said. “I don’t like to come when the mall is crowded. I don’t want to be untrusting of other people, but hearing about mall crimes makes all people less friendly. It’s too bad.”

This article was originally published in the Detroit Free Press.

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