A Safer Decade for the Jewelry Industry

The first 10 years of the 21st century may have been the safest decade yet for the U.S. jewelry industry.

Since 2000, violent deaths, airport thefts, and on-the-road robberies have dropped sharply. More robbery suspects have been arrested, thanks to vigorous post-9/11 law enforcement, information sharing by jewelers, and ongoing efforts by Jewelers’ Security Alliance to raise awareness among police and jewelers about the criminals who prey on the industry.

Those are among the findings from JSA crime statistics for 2000–2009. JCK reviewed them and asked JSA president John Kennedy to comment on how the security situation has—and hasn’t—improved in the past decade

Tougher law enforcement. JSA’s close contacts with the FBI and local police departments—and its ongoing efforts to apprise them of the industry’s special problems—have paid off. Pursuit, arrests, and sentencing of criminals preying on the jewelry industry are more vigorous than they were 10 years ago, and information sharing between local and national law enforcement agencies has improved.

In addition, since the 2001 terrorist attack on America, law enforcement officials have taken greater interest in jewelry-industry crimes, especially off-premises (on-the-road) crimes. They’re also focusing more on foreign criminals operating here, especially South American robbery and theft gangs, notes Kennedy.

To combat the gangs, the FBI has set up several task forces in areas where the jewelry industry is concentrated. In New York City, the country’s largest jewelry center, a longtime effort between the FBI and the New York Police Department has kept losses low—only six events were reported in 2009.

“Nothing is better in preventing jewelry crime than taking these professional gangs and criminals off the street,” says Kennedy.

Tougher immigration and airport restrictions also have had “a big impact” in catching criminals and discouraging crimes, Kennedy notes. In 2009, JSA received no reports of losses at any U.S. airports, and only five in 2008. That’s down from a decade ago when 20 to 25 were reported annually. “An airport used to be a major place for jewelry thefts,” Kennedy says. “Now, with post-9/11 restraints, that’s essentially disappeared.”

Fewer deaths. There has been a dramatic decline in murders during robberies. Total deaths dropped from 46 in 1980 to 31 in 1990, to nine in 2000, and seven last year. Among jewelry personnel, the number fell from 16 in 1995 (when such figures began being kept) to three in 2009.

One reason: More jewelry criminals are being arrested and given long prison sentences, Kennedy notes.

Just as important is a change in jewelry store personnel’s reaction to robbers, largely because of JSA’s ongoing efforts to alert and inform them. “Jewelers are acting more sensibly during robberies and not resisting criminals,” Kennedy observes. “They’re more aware of risks they—and their staff and bystanders—face in fighting back. Resisting a robber, instead of just turning over goods which can be replaced, can get someone shot or killed.”

Fewer on-the-road attacks. Off-premises robberies—primarily of traveling jewelry salespeople—have dropped significantly. Today, they’re half the number of the mid-1990s, when they accounted for most of the industry’s annual losses, says Kennedy.

Last year, for example, saw a 26.7 percent decline in off-premises robberies (137, down from 187 in 2008) and a 40 percent drop in dollar losses ($24.8 million, down from $42.9 million). Nationwide, their frequency went from 15.6 per month in 2008 to 11.4 in 2009. Those are the lowest numbers since the early 1980s, before the arrival of South American theft gangs.

Again, stepped-up law enforcement in the past decade is a big reason for fewer reports of attacks and losses. However, JSA’s data reveal another one—the shrinking numbers of traveling jewelry salespeople.

Kennedy calls the sharp drop in 2009 “part of a larger, continuing decline” over the last decade. “It will probably continue because of different channels of distribution used today by retailers, higher costs to send people on the road, and the aging of experienced traveling salespersons,” he says. “There just aren’t many young people replacing them.”

Meanwhile, attacks on trunk and remount shows have almost disappeared because of tighter security. Just a few years ago, up to 25 robberies and substantial losses were reported annually. That led insurance companies to demand more security and armed escorts for show personnel, which discouraged professional thieves and robbery gangs. “They know armed escorts are now standard for these shows, and that’s drastically reduced losses,” Kennedy notes.

Fewer losses. Overall annual jewelry industry losses to crime in the past decade declined from $146.9 million in 2000 to $97.7 million in 2009.

Kennedy cites several reasons. While the gross amount of jewelry sold annually in the United States has grown, there are fewer jewelry stores and outlets. Besides the drop in on-the-road losses, the number of annual robberies is down because of tougher law enforcement and fewer stores. In addition, credit card fraud has declined dramatically. “Jewelers have realized the risks and operate more carefully, turning down Internet or phone orders that seem fishy,” Kennedy explains.

Getting worse. Some types of crimes have gotten worse or taken new directions in recent years. There is still “a tremendous amount of loss” in shipping jewelry products, Kennedy notes. “That’s not due to misconduct or carelessness by jewelers. Most losses occur internally at shipping companies, and no carrier is exempt.”

Another growing trend of the past decade is selling stolen jewelry online. “This is a big issue that simply didn’t exist 10 years ago,” says Kennedy. He notes that jewelry worth at least $2.2 million is for sale on eBay and other sites and calls the phenomenon “a whole new way for criminals to fence.”

Safer? Overall, the jewelry industry is “certainly much more security conscious than 10 years ago,” Kennedy says. Modern communications technology, especially the Internet and e-mail, helps jewelers find and share information with each other and with police, he notes, including “specifics like a picture, an identification, or mode of operation—even a license plate.”

JSA e-mails weekly Crime Alerts, and many jewelers use the organization’s Web site (www.jewelerssecurity.org). “When we posted pictures recently on the JSA Web site of some stolen inventory, for example, we had 1,000 visitors in no time to view them and know what to look for,” Kennedy says. “Overall, visits to JSA’s Web site have quadrupled in the past couple years.”

So, are jewelers and others in the industry safer today?

Kennedy calls security awareness and crime prevention a never-ending fight. “It’s much more than merely educating jewelers in security,” he says. “Knowing what to do is essential, but being reminded frequently to follow simple security rules and safe security practices—using forceful, real-life examples of crimes—is absolutely necessary.”

He adds, “The jewelry industry is still a very dangerous place to work. But it’s a lot safer than it was 10 years ago.”