Holiday theft down in the city

Holiday theft down in the city
Many Old Town businesses, including Periwinkle, pictured here, are on an email chain where they notify each other when shoplifting occurs. (Photo/Olivia Anderson)

By Olivia Anderson |

The holiday season is in full swing, and with it comes the possibility of residential and commercial theft as well. Although Alexandria’s shoplifting statistics are down from last year, local businesses have still experienced a number of retail crimes over the past few months and are thus taking theft prevention measures.

According to data collected by the Alexandria Police Department, a total of 56 shoplifting and concealment incidents have been reported for November and December, with a few weeks still left in December. This marks a decrease from 2020, which had 93 cases over the same two months, and 2019, during which 111 cases occurred over the same two months.

At 464 total shoplifting and concealment incidents in 2021, this also marks a decrease from 2020, which had a total of 598 cases, and 2019, with 484 total cases.

Conversely, national shoplifting crimes appear to be on the rise. The Wall Street Journal reported that shoplifting at CVS stores around the country has increased by 30% since the start of the pandemic, and Walgreens recently announced it would be closing five more San Francisco stores due to shoplifting, meaning it will have closed 22 stores total there in the last five years.

According to the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention, more than 500,000 shoplifting incidents occur every day and $13 billion worth of goods are stolen a year. The problem is particularly pronounced in California, where shoplifting merchandise worth $950 or less has been reduced to a misdemeanor, which, according to the Hoover Institution, means law enforcement is less likely to investigate or bring charges.

In Alexandria, large corporations like Ross and Lululemon in Old Town have reportedly experienced an uptick in crime during the holiday months. Additionally, the AT&T store on Duke Street recently had all of its display phones stolen, totaling thousands of dollars worth of merchandise.

Elizabeth Mason, owner of another Old Town shop, Periwinkle, said that many stores in the area are all on an email chain in which business owners can inform each other when a theft takes place.

“We can all be like, ‘Hey, be on the lookout. So and so looks suspicious,’” Mason said. “Or we’ll actually see them taking it and send a video to everyone saying, ‘Look, this person stole from me.’”

While Mason said she hasn’t noticed any shoplifting at Periwinkle recently, she has taken steps for theft prevention such as cameras and a security system. She also looks out for people who enter and leave the store abruptly or who come in and act like they’re deeply fixated on their phone.

But she did admit there are times when it’s difficult to pinpoint that an item has been stolen until after the fact.

“Nine times out of 10 we just don’t know. We don’t know it until after and we watch the video,” Mason said. “I feel like it goes through waves; sometimes I feel like, ‘Oh my gosh, every day something is getting taken’ and then other times it’s [not].”

Employees at Vintage Mirage, a neighboring consignment shop, said they are trained on what to look out for when it comes to shoplifting, especially in the winter months.

Vintage Mirage has a live feed video that shows footage from all the cameras, and manager Tatiana Davis said she can also view the video on her phone. The store also limits the amount of people inside the shop in order to keep an eye on shoppers.

“There’s normally three or four of us [employees] during the holidays because we just never know,” Davis said.

In the event of theft, workers let the owner know if they’ve discovered something missing on video after the fact. If someone is stealing and an employee notices in the moment they will verbally order the shoplifter to return the item, but if they run off, the employee is not supposed to follow, per company protocol.

Someone stole an item two weeks ago, for instance, and the owner yelled after them but the person ran away. Another incident captured on video involved a man who snuck upstairs into the owner’s office and poked around before leaving. The store filed a police report as a result, but generally Davis said that’s as far as it goes.

“We did contact the Alexandria police and they did come right away, so that’s good,” Davis said. “But they’re not always good at following up, even if we send them the video [because] they can’t really do anything. [The thief] has to be in the store at the time – other than that they just take a report.”

Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan Porter said that his department can prosecute if APD makes an arrest and provides enough evidence to move forward with a case.

“What it really boils down to is a case-by-case specific analysis to make sure there is sufficient evidence to proceed, and then if there is, we would prosecute the case,” Porter said.

It’s not just retail businesses that are on the lookout for theft during the holidays; some Alexandrians have been reporting residential package theft this holiday season, too.

Neighbors have been posting stories on the social networking site, Nextdoor, including one user who posted security camera footage last week of a woman stealing a package from his home in the Colecroft neighborhood. The resident said he filed a police report in response.

A West End resident was arrested in October for six petit larceny incidents of stealing packages from the porches of Old Town homes. Some of the stolen merchandise included $393.17 worth of electrical lighting fixtures, a $250 sleep apnea machine and $74 worth of delivered food. The 56-year-old suspect goes to court on Dec. 20.

Package thefts in the city from doorsteps and front porches during the day usually increase between October and January, often due to the sheer number of items being delivered, according to APD.

“Package thefts are on the rise around the holidays, as more people are receiving packages,” Officer Marcel Bassett, APD’s public information officer, said.

This type of theft also appears to be a national trend, particularly around the holidays. According to a 2021 Package Theft Statistic Report conducted by C & R Research, 60% of those surveyed said they know someone who had a package stolen during the holidays. Of the 23% who said they had a package stolen, 30% said they had a package stolen more than once.

Comparatively, in 2020, 43% said they had a package stolen and 61% said they knew someone who had a package stolen.

To mitigate package theft, APD suggests encouraging family and neighbors to pick up packages as soon as possible after they are delivered. The department also suggests tracking packages and being present at the time of delivery, if possible. Many mail carriers, such as FedEx, UPS, USPS and DHl, allow shipment tracking online.

Finally, APD suggests asking a neighbor to pick up mail if being present is not an option. Additionally, the U.S. Postal Service can hold mail for those traveling during the holiday season.

Porter said that in his experience, larcenies tend to increase around the holidays. He also noted that the recent proliferation of security cameras over the past few years is both a proactive and reactive measure.

“I think they can be a deterrent because if they’re prominent, people who might be considering theft realize that they’re on video,” Porter said. “It also helps in investigation and prosecution if [they catch something] on video.”

As a general rule of thumb, Porter encouraged residents and businesses to remain vigilant and to call the police department rather than to intervene if they notice suspicious activity.

“This is an issue and unfortunately people do these things,” Porter said. “I would be alert to it, aware of it, conscious to keep an eye on the store floor during business hours, and be willing to call the police if you see theft going on or highly suspicious behavior.”