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The many faces of thieves

By Deborah Porter
Source: Interloc News, September 1996

The man out front is in his early to mid-40's, clean-shaven, of average build, and slightly balding. He's wearing a lightweight sports coat and chinos. In his left hand he holds a large Macy's shopping bag. He pauses, checks his watch, then steps casually through the entrance of the bookstore.

At the front of the shop a clerk concentrates on a large stack of books. She looks up, smiles, and then continues shelving the new arrivals. She's seen him several times before. He calls out a greeting then continues through the shelves.

The man pauses from time to time, takes a book, methodically examines the cover, and reserves it. He bides his time; there are a few customers browsing nearby. Still, he remains confident and continues his measured survey.

He finds a deserted aisle and casts a furtive glance at the clerk—all clear. He reaches out, takes an oversized art book, absently thumbs through its pages, looks around yet again, and slides the book neatly into the bag. With impeccable timing he continues in this fashion until 8 minutes later, he has filled the bag. He then nonchalantly removes the sports coat and lays it over the arm holding the bag. Just one more thing to do... He approaches the clerk, asks her politely about a particular title, chats with her for a moment about the author, then leaves the store.

As he heads to his car, where his trunk is stacked with identically filled bags, he smiles with an air of assurance and accomplishment. He's right on schedule—only a few more stores to "hit," and he'll be done for the day.

Book theft and abuse is on the rise, and similar scenarios occur frequently all over the county. Many of these crimes remain undiscovered or are left unreported, yet bookstores and libraries lose thousands of dollars each year from theft alone. Some organizations will absorb the loss, but the smaller ones can be devastated. If losses continue and become increasingly substantial, library and bookstore operators will be forced to either take preventative action or close their doors. By implementing effective security procedures based on common sense, you can take action before theft occurs. But first, you need to develop a mindset that allows you to look at your organization and its vulnerabilities with a thief's perspective.

Volumes of books have been written on the complex motivations that fuel criminal behavior, with the hope that our understanding will help build awareness and give us knowledge to protect ourselves from becoming victims. According to Stephen Huntsberry, Chief of Campus Police at The Evergreen State College in Olympia WA, most book thieves commit these crimes either for complex psychological reasons or for monetary gain.

The personal obsession

Huntsberry, whose investigative efforts led to the eventual arrest of notorious book thief Stephen C. Blumberg, says that thieves who steal books for psychological reasons are rarely out to make a profit. In fact, they often harbor a personal obsession with these items. Huntsberry discovered that Stephen Blumberg's obsession led him to steal a vast collection of books so that he could appear intelligent, highly educated and well-read. "I think a secondary reason he stole those books is because he enjoyed beating the system and tweaking the noses of those in law enforcement and those who had custody over the books."

David Liston, Protection Outreach Officer at Smithsonian Institution Protection Services believes that thieves also steal books either to complete their own collections, to exact revenge upon an authority figure, or because they have a perverted love for the objects. Sometimes, he adds "they steal for the sake of attention, vandalism, anger, frustration, hate and destruction."

A thief often begins his dubious career when he finds himself in a situation where he's faced with the golden opportunity to steal. If he gets away with it, he'll try again. "When he's successful, the thief feels the rush of the power that theft brings," says Liston. Success builds upon success. The thief begins to rationalize his actions and feels compelled to steal more frequently. In some cases the compulsion to steal begins to overshadow other areas of his life and the thief finds that he is fighting an urge that has become stronger that he is. Although he may desperately wish to stop, he is unable to do so. He may even stage his own discovery so that he will be forced to stop stealing and get the help he needs.

Thieves for hire

Thieves that steal for psychological reasons make up one end of the spectrum, but those on the other end steal purely for profit. "A professional thief goes to work each day determined to make a profit. As a small businessman, he's got typical business expenses, schedules to keep, orders to get out, customers to satisfy and a business to continue building," says Liston. "His business ethic is to successfully compete against every place he visits and steals from. He may love to have the recognition of book dealing some day, but right now he's focused on cash, cash and more cash. His greatest fear isn't getting caught stealing, but making that best cash deal without arousing suspicion from legitimate dealers."

There are thriving organized stolen book rings currently preying on legitimate establishments worldwide. Although we know they are out there, they maintain a shadowy presence and operate under a clever disguise.

This past July, Interloc subscribers Bill and Elaine Petrocelli of Book Passage bookstore in Corta Madera, California worked closely with local police to participate in a sting operation that led to the eventual arrest of a California bookstore owner and an alleged stolen book supplier. Ron Freeman, Detective in the Investigations Division of the Twin Cities Police Department in Larkspur, CA, helped orchestrate the sting operation with the help of a confidential informant and the San Francisco Police Department Special Investigations Division led by Sergeant Ron Kern.

The motivation behind the thefts in the Book Passage case was money, and plenty of it. "The confidential informant said that he worked for one of the suspects, a bookstore owner in San Francisco, exclusively as a thief for hire for 10 years," said Detective Freeman. "During that 10 years, he told me he never made less than $30,000 a year and a couple of years, he made up around $60,000—and that's operating on 25% of the retail price of the book."

In this case, the thieves posed as customers and shoplifted the items. "We know, for example, that one of the suspects we arrested was going into Book Passage on a weekly basis to steal books—$ 100 to $200 worth at a shot." And because the suspects were professionals, it was difficult both to identify them and to catch them in the act. According to Detective Freeman, most book thieves "look more like professors, with the glasses, the suits and the hat. They look just like somebody who should be in a bookstore." Also, contrary to what you might think, sometimes book thieves do make legitimate purchases. "They'll buy one and steal 10. It just depends on whether or not they think somebody is on to them."

Professional thieves work quickly and efficiently. Detective Freeman says his confidential informant mentioned that one of the suspects had recently gone to Southern California to "do books." "He returned four days later. When he was arrested he had over $10,000 worth of books in the trunk of his car from stores in the LA/ San Diego area."

Getting involved in this case has been an eye-opening experience for Detective Freeman and other law enforcement personnel in the Bay Area. Since the publicity generated by the Book Passage case, Freeman says he has received telephone calls from bookstore owners all over the state of California.

He's since discovered that this particular theft ring has infiltrated the San Francisco Bay area, parts of Southern California, and Las Vegas and Reno, Nevada. "We've even heard them talking about going up to Oregon because it is considered ‘virgin territory' and the bookstores are not as sophisticated on alarms as they are in California."

Detective Freeman is hoping the Book Passage case will help generate awareness among bookstore owners. "Maybe a lot of the bookstore owners who were experiencing losses were looking at their employees and figuring that this stuff was going out the back door, when in fact, it was going out the front door. It's a terrible thing to be the owner of a store and hire people that you like and respect and all of a sudden, here you are doubting their credibility."

The inside job

Unfortunately, and more often than anyone knows or will admit, thefts committed by insiders can and do happen regularly. Although book thefts committed by outsiders appear to be on the rise, bookstore owners and librarians can not discount the devastating effect of a thief posing as a trusted employee or volunteer.

Insiders steal books for many reasons, and according to Huntsberry can often be quite particular about the items they are looking to steal. "These are the people who will go in and cut out book-plates or artwork inside the book for resale. They already have their special niche in the marketplace." Insiders are also very difficult to catch. They can obtain regular unsupervised access to valuable inventory, they often know how to bypass standard security devices, they are keen observers of other's work schedules, and perhaps worst of all they are trusted.

It could happen to you

Thieves come in all shapes and sizes. They do not fit neatly into stereotypical categories. They are armed with their unique perspectives and are spurred on by their personal motivations. Although their methods differ, they are united in one goal: they are out to steal your property. Don't think theft can't happen to you. It can. Take some time today to take an honest appraisal of the vulnerabilities of your organization.