AUBURN — Saying shoplifting is “out of control,” the Auburn Police Department has launched an anti-shoplifting campaign with tougher enforcement.

“We want people to know that Auburn is open for business but closed to shoplifting,” said Deputy Police Chief Jason Moen.

With just about all stores hit, shoplifting has increased by 84 percent in the first five months of 2018 compared to the same time last year. “We have to do something,” Moen said.

The new campaign means that, starting Wednesday, anyone charged with shoplifting will be arrested and taken to the Androscoggin County Jail. Their photo, name and the charge against them will be posted on the Auburn Police Department Facebook page.

Typically, when someone is charged with shoplifting, police give them a summons and a court date and send them on their way. “Now you’re going to jail,” Moen said.

Police blame the shoplifting spike on increased illegal drug use. “I would say about 90 percent is fueled by drug use, especially with heroin and fentanyl mixes that we’re seeing right now,” Moen said. “This is concerning to us.”

Quentin Chapman, who works in theft and loss for Roopers Beverage & Redemption, said the extra steps are necessary because shoplifting “is out of hand.” There’s more shoplifting by “career” and “opportunity” shoplifters, Chapman said. He agrees that drug use is driving the spike.

Shoplifting happens frequently at Walmart, Moen said. But shoplifting is also happening at Kmart, Home Depot, Lowe’s, Harbor Freight and JC Penney. “Millions of dollars are lost every year by these companies,” Moen said.

People are walking out of stores with goods such as televisions, power tools, clothing, food and jewelry. “It runs the whole gamut,” he said.

People are stealing by concealing goods, walking past the registers without buying anything and heading out the door.

Another growing method is what he calls “skip-scanning.” Shoppers go to a self-checkout and don’t scan – or pay for – all of their items. “They scan one of their items, throw a couple in the bag, scan another item, throw a couple of more in the bag,” Moen said.

Auburn police are considering recommending a city ordinance that requires a certain ratio of staff to supervise self-scanning registers. At Home Depot, for instance, there are a couple of self-scanners and they are monitored, but Walmart has eight or 10 self-scanners, Moen said. “It’s hard for one person to keep an eye on that.”

Moen said that people charged with shoplifting often have cash on them. Recently, police arrested a woman on a charge of shoplifting at Walmart. “She shoplifted $65 worth of merchandise, but had $125 in cash in her wallet. Nine times out of 10 they’ve got money to pay for it but are choosing to steal.”

Auburn police quantified the spike in May after analyzing service calls. As a retail district, shoplifting has always happened in Auburn.

“But we saw a huge spike,” Moen said. “We’re seeing a couple of organized theft rings making organized thefts and turning around and pawning them to pawn shops,” or selling the goods and food for money.

The spike in shoplifting is creating a drain on the Auburn Police Department and skewing its crime rate.

Auburn is a safe city, Moen said. There hasn’t been a homicide in years, burglaries are down, and other violent crimes are few. “But our property crime rate is fairly high,” in part because Auburn is a regional shopping destination. People may look at that crime rate, which in 2016 was 34.33 crimes per 1,000 people, and say, “‘Oh my God! It must be a dangerous city!'”

When it comes to numbers in the overall crime rate, shoplifting carries the same weight as a homicide, Moen said. “Shoplifting is driving our property crime.”

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