In tough economy, employee theft becomes a bigger challenge

Retailers spend a lot of time and money to prevent shoplifting, but a bigger threat to the bottom line is the person behind the counter.

No one knows exactly how much employees steal each year, but one national survey late last year showed that companies lost $18.7 billion in the 12 months ending in June because of worker theft — the largest single cause of retail "shrinkage."

Another survey for 2008 found that employees stole far more than shoplifters and that among 22 large retailers, one in 30 employees was caught stealing.

"It happens from the top down to the bottom up," said Terrence Shulman, an author and a counselor on the subject who is a lawyer with a master's degree in social work.

Two recent local cases illustrate how large the problem can be. A former employee is suspected of stealing more than $300,000 in goods from a Target store in Kansas City. In Johnson County, a salesman and shipping clerk together stole an estimated $30,000 worth of suits from an Overland Park men's store.

Experts say that with hard times, more employees are stealing, but many have always done it anyway. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has long said that 75 percent of employees steal from their employers at least once.

They start small, get bolder and often get caught, said Casey Chroust, a vice president with the Retail Industry Leaders Association.

Said Shulman: "More are getting caught because security is getting more sophisticated, but there are fewer loss-prevention officers, so it’s kind of a wash."

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