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Inside the ORC-Opioid Connection

Quiz an LP investigator about trends in ORC, and it’s nearly certain that he or she will mention the opioid crisis, the fact that drug addiction is a catalyst for a growing number of professional shoplifters. But does it matter? So what if a thief is stealing to get money to score drugs rather than pure profit? What, if any, are the implications for retail, loss prevention, and security strategy?

Walter Palmer

At first, Walter Palmer CFI, CFE, said he wasn’t sure it did matter. After all, drug addiction has always been a driver of store theft. But his attitude changed as Palmer, executive vice president at CAP Index, began to see retailers take an increasing amount of heat for the opioid crisis. “We’ve received a lot of criticism, almost that we’re enablers of the opioid crisis, that we’re turning a blind eye to return fraud that’s fueling the crisis.”

The criticism is unfair, said Palmer—who moderated the “Shoplifters, ORC, Shrinking Justice & Opioids: What’s a Retailer to Do?” session at the Retail Industry Leader Association’s 2018 Retail Asset Protection Conference—firstly because retailers are not the cause but the primary victims of addicts’ theft and additionally because retailers have made some significant shifts in return policies. Several major retailers have significantly tightened return policies to help eliminate the secondary market for cards, he noted, and have even gone so far as to associate nonreceipted returns with customer drivers’ licenses.

At the same time, retailers must still do right by their legitimate customers and are quick to draw fire if policies are judged too restrictive. “That’s when I really got interested. I thought, ‘Wow, this is tough,’” said Palmer. He added that while retailers draw criticism for perceived lax return policies, they don’t earn praise for all the measures and programs, such as medication disposal programs, that they do have and that go above and beyond what they’re required to do.

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How Retailers Can Address the Opioid Crisis
On an industry level, then, the opioid issue has relevance for retailers. It suggests a need to promote how they are providing assistance to fight the crisis and fighting back against the suggestion that they’re somehow to blame for it.

It also reinforces the importance of private-public partnerships to share information and to educate one another, according to Detective First Lieutenant James Grady in the Michigan State Police (MSP) fraud investigation section. Via MSP participation in the Michigan Regional Organized Crime Association, Grady says he’s heard firsthand from retailers about the impact of opioids on ORC and seen efforts by retailers to curb related fraud. “Those working groups have been vital to establishing relationships. But I’m a firm advocate that there is always room for improvement,” he said. But how about at the store level? Are there are implications here as well? Yes, according to several LP executives.

ORC surveys conducted by the National Retail Federation have tracked an increase in violence associated with store theft that goes hand-in-hand with the growing number of professional shoplifters driven by the desperate need to ‘get well,’ suggested Brendan “Ben” Dugan, CFI, ORC and corporate investigator at CVS Heath. As a guest in February on CrimeScience, a bi-weekly podcast by the Loss Prevention Research Council (LPRC), he said addicted offenders have a higher propensity for violence compared to other professional shoplifters and added that it’s not uncommon for them to be in possession of drugs or paraphernalia that enhances an already heightened desperation to escape if apprehended. LPRC director and podcast cohost Read Hayes, PhD, added that addicts could also be aggressive for pharmacological reasons, from sleep deprivation, or out of a desperate a need to settle debts. “There are so many angles,” he said. Listen to the podcast.

Ben Dugan, ORC investigator at CVS Health (left), and Read Hayes of the LPRC discuss the effects of the opioid crisis on retail crime.

The obvious upshot for LP executives is to ensure that policies and training are sufficient to protect store teams and customers in light of the threat, which may also warrant some less-apparent store-security measures. For example, Hayes noted that pharmacies in retail drug stores may need to consider how certificates are displayed so that pharmacists can’t be identified and put at personal risk by addicts angered at a refusal to fill a fake prescription. Another risk to consider, especially for stores with pharmacy operations, is the heightened likelihood of drug overdoses on premises, said Palmer.

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LP teams might also revisit where to implement heightened security measures as the crisis raises the risk of violence beyond city centers. “A lot of stores that are located out in the suburbs…are having to deal with something they’ve never had to deal with before,” said Dugan. “People who have been afflicted with this addiction are targeting our stores in those neighborhoods, which we’ve never seen before.” He added that it’s helpful to evaluate addiction as a possible motive during interviews as it can inform the most effective strategy for conducting them.

LP executives might also find it worthwhile to assess if incidents involving addicts are being correctly regarded and investigated as ORC, according to an investigator for a national retail chain in an interview with LP Magazine. “Retailers have had to reeducate some of their in-store AP teams to not dismiss their incidents due to the fact that drug users are the ones taking the product. They can be quick to say that they’re just being hit by drug users and are not thinking about the next level fence that is driving the demand,” he said. “ORC has many levels and layers, and loss prevention teams need to be reminded that when someone steals high-demand product that is not for personal use, there is usually a level of ORC involved.”

Finally, while product protection strategy may not vary depending on the motive of professional shoplifters, identification of offenders may. Dugan said that the addict-shoplifter, because of his or her need to address a daily habit, tends to be more predictable and less strategic than a traditional booster counterpart. This fact can raise the value of predictive analytics and point-of-sale data for more timely identification of offenders.


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