The Usual Suspects

The mistletoe, dreidels and holly that decorate stores between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day mark a happy, busy time as consumers shop for holiday gifts. They also mark a darker sign of the season: higher crime. The holiday season is the most dangerous and costly period for jewelers, especially careless ones, say industry and security experts. Crooks of all kinds — armed robbers, scam artists and light-fingered employees — are out in force to take advantage of harried and distracted merchants.

“We experience more losses during the holidays than other times of year,” says Ronald Harder, president of Jewelers Mutual Insurance, Neenah,Wis. But the surge in crime isn’t only because crooks are more active. Store owners, managers and salespeople are often unwitting accomplices. “With so much happening in the store during the holidays, jewelers tend to be more lax about security.”

Reducing the potential for loss is always the best defense. And now — in September or October — is the best time to prepare, before the demands and distractions of the holidays begin.

Theft: More jewelry store robberies occur in December than in any other month, according to studies by the Jewelers’ Security Alliance; the second most robbery-prone month is November. “Obviously, the holiday season [from Thanksgiving through New Year’s] is the time of greatest risk,” says JSAPresident John Kennedy. You can protect yourself against this increased threat by taking a few simple steps and staying alert.

First, survey your security equipment. Check all alarms — including advanced-line security, motion detectors, perimeter and safe alarms — along with safes, vaults and permanent and wireless holdup buttons. Make sure surveillance equipment is operating properly and replace videotapes regularly.

Ask your security company what steps to take if the system breaks down and the procedures to follow if you or an employee needs to enter the store outside of normal hours.

It won’t hurt to check your time locks, door, display case and showroom window locks also.

Review written security procedures with your staff, especially with new hires and part-timers. This document should detail what to do to prevent theft, contain code words used to alert the staff to suspicious people and set procedures to follow in the event of an armed robbery. Review the theft-prevention video series from JMI and always have a copy of JSA’s security manual on hand.

Designate employees to conduct daily security checks, such as ensuring that display case glass is secure and motion detectors are working.

Communication is a simple and efficient way to deter crime. Set up and maintain a phone or fax alert system to exchange information with local merchants and quickly pass word of thefts or warnings of attempted fraud. Team up inside the store as well. Don’t open or close the store alone. One person should lock or unlock the doors, while another watches from a short distance. Relock the door as soon as you are inside. At closing time, clear the store of customers and lock the doors before storing merchandise in safes and vaults. Report suspicions to the police.

Maintaining your schedule — never letting a stranger in before or after normal operating hours — sounds like common sense, yet a recent JCK study found one in three jewelers would open the doors. “People knock on the door after the store closes saying they want to buy a last-minute present or make a delivery,” says Kennedy. ‘You want to make the sale, but the shopper or delivery person often turns out to be a thief.”

Pay special attention to where you put your wares. Divide your more expensive merchandise among several cases throughout the store, but away from the exits, so thieves have a harder time targeting them.

The holidays bring increased traffic and added pressure to serve many customers, which makes it easy to get distracted and leave merchandise on the counter or a showcase unlocked. “But if you do that,” warns Kennedy, “you’ll definitely wind up losing a tray of merchandise.” Keep all displays and showcases locked except when showing merchandise, and keep the key on a holder on your wrist.

To control traffic in the store, use a buzzer system to admit customers, greet everyone who comes in and make eye contact. Be visible and interested in what they’re doing. Thieves don’t like attention.

During the sales day, have at least two employees on the sales floor at all times. Stress to all employees the importance of waiting on one customer at a time and never turning away. In addition, show only one item at a time from a showcase. This cuts down on potential distractions.

As an extra security measure, hire an armed off-duty police officer as a guard during the holiday if you feel your location warrants it. It will cost about the same as hiring a private security service and gives you increased and faster access to the police department.

Look inside: Internal theft — often called shrinkage — costs retailers $17 billion a year, says the National Retail Federation. Jewelers lose an amount equal to 1.29% of annual sales from shrinkage, according to the University of Florida’s 1995 National Retail Security Survey. Like external theft, inside jobs are more prevalent during the holidays than at other times.

You can help to safeguard your operation by hiring the right people. Scrutinize applicants for seasonal jobs as much as those for full-time positions. When reviewing an applicant’s background, call references, check for gaps in employment and confirm home and former employer addresses. Any missing or incorrect information could signal a problem.

Control seasonal employees’ access to cash, says NRF. Limit money in cash registers by making timely deposits of excess cash, authorize just a few employees to handle large amounts of cash and institute dual controls for those who do.

Restrict access to merchandise by controlling the number of keys to showcases and the number of employees with access to keys. Never leave keys hanging on hooks in the open.

Tell employees you will conduct periodic bag checks of everyone — including management — and then do it. Publicize your readiness to prosecute anyone caught stealing.

Fraud: All sorts of fraud — credit card, check, counterfeiting — goes up noticeably during the holidays, says Bruce Van Kleeck, spokesman for the NRF. Bad checks triple during the holidays, says Telecheck Services Inc., the world’s largest check acceptance company. Checks account for 37% of retail spending, so this is something no retailer can ignore.

When accepting a check, make sure the name, address and telephone number are printed on it and that the written and numerical amounts match. If the signature is illegible, ask the writer to print his or her name underneath. Check the driver’s license for validity and write the person’s place of employment, work phone or Social Security number on the check. “Make no exceptions,” says a Telecheck spokesperson. “Fraud artists are skilled at creating hassles that leave you stuck with bad checks.”

Be aware that low check numbers (100-500) could indicate a new account (which can be risky, says Telecheck), the four-digit bank code at the bottom should match the one in the top right corner, and all checks (except those from the government) have a perforation along one side.

For extra security, sign up with a check verification service, such as TeleCheck Services Inc., to reduce risk in accepting checks.

Be alert for stolen, altered or counterfeit credit cards. Hold onto the card when ringing up a transaction and look for the following indications of fraud:

  • A signature on the receipt that doesn’t match the one on the card.

  • Cards that aren’t signed. (If the card isn’t signed, ask the bearer to sign it and then compare the signature with a valid form of photo ID.)

  • If your state allows it, write the serial number and expiration dates of that ID document on the sales draft.

  • All credit cards have certain security designs or features such as clear, uniform account numbers or holograms. Contact card companies to become familiar with these.

  • Compare the account numbers on the computer terminal and printed on the sales receipt. They should match those on the card. Some thieves alter the magnetic strips on stolen cards and re-encode them with numbers of cards not reported stolen, says JSA.

  • Some credit cards, such as those issued through VISA and MasterCard, have a four-digit number printed somewhere on them. This should correspond with the first four digits in the embossed account number.

Closing advice: While there is no “typical” shoplifter, watch for suspicious characters, such as people carrying coats or packages in which stolen jewelry or weapons could be concealed.

Watch for sudden waves of people coursing into the store who suddenly spread out and try to distract salespeople at the counters.

Establish a tight refund policy. Require receipts, ID and/or management approval for refunds.

Meet with law enforcement officers in the next few weeks and ask them to visit your store periodically during the holiday season.

Review operating schedules and don’t skimp on help. The investment in payroll will mean fewer losses.

Most importantly, remain aware. Even the most sophisticated equipment and procedures can fail if the human element is missing. “Loss prevention is an attitude,” says William McGinnis, executive vice president at JMI. “Adopt strict procedural precautions to develop the positive kind of attitude that will help prevent loss without spending a lot of money.”


Here are two references on how to protect your store from crime.

  • Manual of Jewelry Security, $29.95 for members, $49.95 for non-members. Jewelers’ Security Alliance, 6 E. 45 St., New York, NY 10017; (800) 537-0067.

  • “Preventing Losses,” a six-part video series, $5 for policyholders, $50 for non-policyholders. Jewelers Mutual Insurance Co., Box 468, Neenah, WI 54957; (800) 558-6411. Non-policyholders may rent the series for $50 ($45 is refunded when the videos are returned).