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Group of crimefighters using VR, help from former crooks to cut down shoplifting

Posted at 3:14 PM, Jan 13, 2021

ACE Hardware in downtown Denver is having a hard time with shoplifting.

“It’s just a huge spike in theft when the sun goes down,” employee Cole Howard said.

Howard says there’s been a major increase in theft since the start of the pandemic. There's been so much stealing that staff has added more security devices to protect their products.

“The displays are always chained up, as well as the caged-up ones below the display,” Howard said while pointing out some power tools.

Security experts say what’s happening at this hardware store isn’t an isolated spike.

“Theft is occurring broadly across the nation,” said Dr. Read Hayes, a criminologist at the University of Floridaand director of the Loss Prevention Research Council, a self-described group of crime fighters with a mission of developing crime control solutions.

Hayes says the increase in shoplifting is in part due to the pandemic. An increase of unemployment has contributed to the problem and so has a shift in attention from workers in stores.

Hayes says many workers are now focusing more on social distancing and less on loss prevention.

“Now, you got a lot of anonymous people that are masked,” he said. “No one is near them or talking to them or serving them. So, it was this perfect storm.”

It's a perfect and costly storm.

Hayes says shoplifting has a trickle-down effect on the economy and often costs honest customers more money. The losses a business takes on due to theft often led to price increases to make up the difference.

Recently, Hayes’ team started getting help from of all people former thieves. They’re working with criminal offenders and designed virtual reality simulation labs to help major retailers prevent theft.

“(We) get some assessments about what people think, how they would respond, what might be better options,” Hayes said.

Back on the floor at ACE Hardware, employees say the best options to cut down on theft are to cut their hours and close early.

“It’s not worth your life over a power tool,” Howard said, adding even if they catch shoplifting on camera, there’s not much they can do.

“Nobody really knows what the new year is going to be like,” he said. “But we’re hoping its better than the last.”