Stores seeing huge spike in liquor thefts

SEATTLE -- The switch to private liquor sales has made it easier for shoppers to get their hands on booze, but it's also made it easier for crooks.

In the past several months, police have noticed a growing trend of brazen liquor thefts. The shoplifting has become so rampant that some say it's practically an epidemic.

"The shoplifters are more bold, they tend not to care and they're getting more violent with security officers," said assistant Seattle City Attorney Jana Jorgensen.

Law enforcement officials say the thefts are happening every day in every city at nearly every grocery store. A source claims one Queen Anne grocer has lost $1,000 a day since June. That's $150,000 in lost profits and stolen tax revenue for the state, and that's just one store.

"There is a number of rings out there working, stealing alcohol," said King County sheriff's office spokesperson Cindi West. "It's a quick way to make a buck and easy to get rid of.

King County sheriff's detectives have been clobbered with liquor theft investigations since June, when the state's new law privatizing liquor sales took effect.

West said in one particular case, four thieves used a store's own grocery carts to make off with nearly $3,800 worth of alcohol.

Some grocery chains have a no chase and no confrontation policy, which makes it easier for the crooks to get away with the stolen booze.

Every major retailer selling spirits is being targeted. Representatives from Safeway, Albertsons, Fred Meyer and QFC all declined to be interviewed, but admitted that booze-theft prevention is a priority. Many stores have started to lock up the high-end liquor, and most have added removable safety caps.

But when selling is the name of the game, the majority of spirits remain within reach.

Jorgensen works with the Seattle Police Department's Retail Theft Unit and said she believes organized crime rings are working the I-5 Corridor for specific customers.

"Which can be restaurants, clubs who don't want to pay full price or sometimes larger organized crime fences that deal not only in liquor but other stolen items and take it out of state," she said.

She also insist that the thefts are a public safety issue.

"In speaking with loss prevention officers, they told me that violence has actually increased," she said. "Tthe people who steal liquor versus those who steal diapers or sandwiches are much more confrontational and getting violent with them."

Washington Liquor Control Board enforcement officer Judy Lewis is teaching a class to bartenders, and she also works with grocery store managers to make sure they're in compliance. Lewis says it's not uncommon for booze to be stolen from one store and sold across the street in the parking lot of another store.

"They just might go up to a car and I've heard, anecdotally, if they don't have what you want, they'll say what would you like?," she said.

Stores see it all - a surveillance shocker - as a woman shoves 14 bottles of booze in a stroller with a baby inside.
Jorgensen said it's too easy to steal and thinks big chains need to do more. If they don't?

"It may take a while before we start to see these numbers declining" she said.

On Thursday, the Northwest Grocery Association, which represents 400 grocers statewide, said the bulk of the thefts are due to organized retail crime rings. The association said despite the thefts, revenues for state and local programs is exceeding projections by 5 percent.
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