Newsday
January 23, 2024

ALBANY — Gov. Kathy Hochul and the State Legislature are trying to crack down on a spike in “organized retail theft,” which hits business operators’ bottom lines, drives up costs to customers and brings a new wave of crime to communities.

They propose bolstering state and local police efforts with more funding and task forces, while Hochul also is proposing a “commercial security tax credit” to help retailers protect against the wave.

Retailers statewide lose about $4.4 billion a year from retail theft and resale on the illegal market, according to the Retail Council of New York State.

“It affects communities, it affects employees who witness these crimes, and the safety of our employees is of the utmost importance,” said Melissa O’Connor, president and CEO of the group, which represents 5,000 stores.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Gov. Hochul and the State Legislature are trying to crack down on a spike in “organized retail theft.”
  • They propose bolstering state and local police efforts with more funding and task forces, while Hochul also proposes a “commercial security tax credit” to help retailers protect against the wave.
  • Retailers statewide lose about $4.4 billion a year from retail theft and resale on the illegal market, according to the Retail Council of New York State.

The most frequently stolen items include backpacks, handbags, sunglasses, graphic T-shirts, cellphones, gaming consoles, computer printers and underwear, according to the National Retail Foundation.

Organized retail theft involves criminal rings or serial thievery done to resell products in illegal markets. It became a pressing concern during and after the COVID-19 pandemic when the crime evolved from traditional shoplifting.

Shoplifting is now a petit larceny misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail. State crime statistics don’t keep separate records on petit larceny. Instead, retail theft is included with all larceny statistics, which covers all theft except auto. From 2021 to 2022, larceny increased 37% in New York City, 18% outside New York City, and 34% on Long Island.

“This is not just New York City,” Hochul said. “It’s affecting everywhere. So, to tackle retail theft for the first time ever, we’re going to invest $40 million to establish dedicated teams with our State Police, help our DA’s offices and local police officers, and help them drive down this spike in retail theft.”

Hochul’s proposed tax credit would be for retailers with 100 or fewer employees operating at one or several locations. The measure would lower a business operator’s tax bill if the business spent more than $12,000 for “qualified retail theft prevention expenses.”

Those expenses would include security officers, cameras, security lighting, “locking and hardening measures,” alarm systems, measures to limit access to goods, or “other appropriate anti-theft devices” determined by the state. The tax credit would equal $3,000 for each retail location operated by the business.

“Governor Hochul is right to focus on this issue and provide resources to small businesses so they can protect themselves and operate in a safe environment,” said Matt Cohen, president and CEO of the Long Island Association.

The Retail Council of New York State said a comprehensive approach is necessary. “This issue is national in scope, but it requires state and local responses meaning district attorneys, State Police, and intercity cooperation, which is absolutely critical,” O’Connor said.

“Retail theft is not just an economic crime,” said Kent Sopris, president of the New York Association of Convenience Stores. “These thefts — whether organized or random — put the safety of employees at risk … Protecting retailers and their employees will ensure these businesses remain open and thriving.”

For operators from mom-and-pop shops, pharmacies and convenience stores to department store chains, the rise in the crime also means more stores are locking up staples from toothpaste, aspirin and laundry detergent to prevent theft.

“I’ve been 40 years in retail … and it’s been nothing like magnitude of today,” said Tariq Kahn of Sentar Fuel in West Hempstead, who has owned and operated several convenience stores on Long Island. “They will grab something and there are only one or two employees there … take things and go. It’s just very common.”

Legislative efforts to respond to the issue appear to be gaining support.

“We have to attack this issue from all directions,” said Assemb. Jeffrey Dinowitz (D-Bronx), chairman of the chamber’s powerful Codes Committee. “The issue of retail theft is huge. It’s costing retailers many tens of billions of dollars around the country, and those costs are passed on to the average family.”

He’s sponsored bills to create a statewide office to combat retail theft and to increase penalties for repeat offenders.

More legislative proposals are expected to address the growing crime.

“Since the advent of COVID, it just exploded,” Dinowitz said of retail theft. “A lot of crime has gone down — not enough, but it’s in the right direction — but this is one stubborn crime that just keeps on going. It’s not only an attack on stores, it’s an attack on all of us.”

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