(Another) bogus trend of the week: a plague of shoplifters!

Media criticism.
Dec. 24 2008 3:47 PM

(Another) Bogus Trend of the Week: a Plague of Shoplifters!

The New York Times and Washington Post get snowed by the retail industry.

Shoplifter.
Is there a plague of shoplifters?

The myth of the skeptical reporter dies every time a news organization advances the bogus claim of a government agency, a nonprofit, or a trade association—which is to say, frequently. This month, the press has been agog with stories about increased shoplifting. The New York Times went so far on Dec. 23 as to attribute the increase to the ailing economy in "As Economy Dips, Arrests for Shoplifting Soar," but the piece never delivers on the headline's promise. The Times' lead anecdote is about an unemployed trailer assembler in Elkhart, Ind., who got popped while stealing a $4.99 bottle of sleeping medication. Five paragraphs later, a Knoxville assistant district attorney appears to be supporting the Times when he asserts that "many" new offenders "may be" shoplifting because of the drooping economy. But many isn't really a quantitative number, and may be is the single greatest weasel phrase in the language.

A few paragraphs later, the Times has forgotten its economic-origin-of-shoplifting thesis as it reports out the allegedly burgeoning fake-receipt industry, which makes it possible for shoplifters to fence their stolen goods back to stores at retail prices. Evidence that the fake-receipt scam is growing comes from a company that investigates shoplifting. But just because its business is up 50 percent doesn't necessarily mean fake-receipt shoplifting is up 50 percent, too, and it certainly isn't a reliable marker of a rise in total shoplifting.

(A confidential source at Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., tells the Times that shoplifting is up 19 percent this year over last but asks not to be indentified because "she was not permitted to speak to reporters." Are shoplifting arrests up 19 percent, or is it convictions that are up 19 percent? Maybe the dollar value of retail "shrinkage"—missing merchandise—is up 19 percent? The Times doesn't say.

Other anecdotal bits from the Times: An unnamed undercover security guard at Macy's near Oakland, Calif., claims to have seen more "sprinters," who grab merchandise and bolt for the door. Thieves "often" shield their purloined goods from alarm systems by cloaking them in aluminum foil. (The word often is a staple of bogus trend stories.) Police departments "across the country" claim that shoplifting arrests are 10 percent to 20 percent higher this year, but the departments aren't named. The Times also doesn't give the number of departments consulted or the reporting methodology of those departments.

The piece eventually abandons its "the economy makes them do it" angle by noting that shoplifters in desperate straits aren't "the biggest threat to stores." That honor goes to people like Tommy Tidwell, who plead guilty to running a $1 million shoplifting ring out of Dayton, Ohio.

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Instead of sailing its entire voyage on a sea of fudge, you'd think that the Times yachtsmen would have consulted the FBI crime statistics, which, while not perfect, provide a historical and more rigorous look at shoplifting. The latest figures show that shoplifting offenses in 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2007—the last year for which we have complete data—were smaller than in the peak year of 2003. But even if 2008's data, when they arrive, show a one-year increase in shoplifting, it will be difficult to correlate that with the economy.

The Washington Post takes a similar tack in today's (Dec. 24) story "The Economy's Latest Hurdle for Retailers: Shoplifting." The Post reports:

Economic downturns can lead to increased retail crime as law enforcement organizations cut costs and personnel. Retailers face declining sales, and some are choosing to reduce security staff, according to retail and loss prevention experts.

Hundreds of stores across the country are being shut down, and several retailers have filed for bankruptcy protection, scenarios that tend to lure more crooks.

The financial crisis has drained many consumers' wallets as layoffs mount and 401(k)s continue their freefall. That has contributed to an increase in so-called "opportunistic" theft from shoppers stealing for personal use or consumption.

Proving an increase in shoplifting is another thing. The Post cites a survey of 52 national retailers by the Retail Industry Leaders Association—a trade association, not an impartial observer. The survey found that 84 percent of those retailers had "experienced an increase in amateur/opportunistic shoplifting."

As fudgey statistics go, this one is pure Betty Crocker: The RILA release doesn't say how the retailers compiled their numbers, it doesn't say whether each retailer used the same methodology, and it gives no indication of whether the increase in shoplifting at the reporting retailers is small or big. It does, however, note that 16 percent of surveyed retailers detected a decrease or no change in shoplifting from the previous reporting period.

Locally, the Post reports that shoplifting arrests are up "nearly every month this year" in Alexandria, Va. In Tysons Corner, Va., police say they've arrested 40 on shoplifting charges in the past three weeks but provide no word on whether that number is up or down. A Montgomery County, Md., detective tells the Post that stores have told him that crime is up. That's a vague data set for such an overwhelming headline.

A couple of newspapers tracking this trend do provide hard numbers. The Philadelphia Inquirer story "Tough Economy Boosts Shoplifting" reports a rise in shoplifting arrests from 361 in 2007 to 658 this year in one township. In Philadelphia itself, 4,300 retail theft arrests this year versus 4,090 in all of 2007. Police tell the Asbury Park Press("Shoplifting Rings on Rise as Economy Turns Sour") that shoplifting arrests are up 45 percent from last year, totaling 276.

But a couple of jurisdictions doesn't make a national trend. A San Francisco Chronicle story headlined "Shoplifting on the Rise as Economy Stumbles" acknowledges that shoplifting arrests are down in suburban Pittsburg, Calif., and that San Francisco and Oakland police aren't recording any increase. Likewise, in "Shoplifting on Rise in Tough Times" from the Florida Times-Unionin Jacksonville, an assistant police chief tells the paper that shoplifting is "pretty much flat" this year at the Regency Square mall.In an Associated Press story, Minnesota Retailers Association President Buzz Anderson goes off the usual retailers' script by saying he can't determine whether shoplifting is up because of the recession or because retailers generally see more shoplifting during the holidays.

A news outlet that hopes to prove that the failing economy is causing an increase in shoplifting has two big jobs in front of them. First, they must demonstrate a genuine—as opposed to anecdotal—increase in shoplifting arrests. Then they need to link that increase to the economy. Although academics may have proved such a correlation in the past, none of the shoplifting articles I read this week cited any such authority.

Organizations produce "mythical"—that is, bogus—numbers when no constituency exists for keeping the numbers accurate but a large constituency exists for keeping them high, as Peter Reuter observed in the Public Interest in 1984. Where there is a lack of scholarly interest in the numbers, even greater liberties can be taken. Until somebody produces harder data, the shoplifting epidemic reported in the Times,the Post, and elsewhere is mythical. And bogus.

******

Afterthought: What if shoplifting isn't on the rise but the detection of shoplifting—thanks to the ever-tightening electronic dragnet—is? Also, thanks to William Gardner, who first e-mailed me suggesting the shoplifting stories as a bogus-trend topic. Reuter's article, titled "The (Continued) Vitality of Mythical Numbers," appeared in the Public Interest, No. 75, riffing off of Max Singer's brilliant "The Vitality of Mythical Numbers" in the Public Interest, No. 23. Send shoplifting stories, statistics, and mythical numbers to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the words Shoplifters of the World Unite in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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