Holiday Season Supermarket Heists Caught on Camera: More Food Stolen at the Checkout Counter

PHOTO: Turkeys are for sale at a grocery store in Omaha, Nebraska.
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Many of us have been shopping for a turkey this week, but a few have been grabbing some extra "stuffing."

As supermarkets security cameras across the country have captured, there usually a sudden 25 percent spike of people stealing groceries, according to Larry Miller, the president of The Retail Control Group & The National Supermarket Research Group based in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Retail theft happens so often year-round that it cost the industry an astounding $35.3 billion last year, up nearly $2 billion from 2009, according to the National Retail Federation. American supermarkets alone had almost $6 billion in losses from theft. That can translate into rising food costs for the rest of us who do pay, according to Maureen Fuller, the loss prevention field manager of BIG Y supermarkets in Massachusetts.

"When there is any kind of theft, it results in things including increased prices," she said. "Of course, it we aren't profitable, we have to charge more for what we are selling."

But the real surprise here is that the biggest source of thievery in the supermarket industry comes from within. Nearly 40 percent of supermarket thefts are carried out by employees, where sometimes the thief is the cashier, who skips the scanner when bagging food, and the customer is in on the heist. It's called sweethearting.

"The reason it's called sweethearting is if a cashier, you're my friend, my family, fellow employee, i.e., my sweetheart -- I'll give you things for free by not scanning them and again it's because you're my friend," said Malay Kundu, founder of StopLift Checkout Vision Systems, a software company whose programs are in thousands of supermarkets and retailers.

Kundu said his system captures an 80 percent increase in supermarket thefts around the holidays. Turkey heists happen four times more often in November and December than the rest of the year combined. It's probably no surprise that pumpkins and candy are high on the list of stolen items around Halloween.

The StopLift program uses security camera video combined with computer vision technology to scrutinize how the cashier handles each item to determine whether it is actually being scanned at the checkout counter. When a cashier doesn't properly scan an item, a red target icon appears over it on the computer screen where the security camera video is being fed into.

Security camera feed image using the StopLift program. Credit: ABC News

"For retailers [internal theft] has been their Achilles heel for loss prevention forever," Kundu said. "They are sort of amazed and in disbelief that we do it but again seeing is believing you know there is really no question that it works."

According to the National Retail Federation, employee theft accounts for nearly 40 percent of all supermarket losses. For all retailers, that's a total of $16 billion in lost profits. Given those statistics, Kundu said it didn't take long for supermarkets to jump on his product.

"When you see that turkey being stolen, they have to sell 50 more turkeys to make up for the one that they gave away for free and no one realizes it," he said.

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