July 14, 2006 -- Is Wal-Mart handing shoplifters a license to steal?
Not exactly. The retail giant says it is concentrating on high-dollar losses and will not press charges against shoplifters who steal items less than $25.
The average shoplifter actually takes $854 worth of merchandise.
"Across the country, there are organized retail criminal gangs that work in teams of five or seven," said Joe La Rocca, spokesman for the National Retail Federation.
"They're stealing thousands of dollars from stores going from shopping center to shopping center, every single day, making a living doing this."
Focusing on the Big-Dollar Thefts
If you haven't seen $14,000 worth of handbags snatched right before your eyes or a dozen designer suits stuffed in a shoplifter's bag, then you have no idea what retailers are up against.
Every year, $37 billion in merchandise is pilfered, much of it by professional shoplifters.
"It makes sense to send some people home with their parents and let them be disciplined in their home, while other groups that are stealing thousands of dollars perhaps need to beprosecuted and need to go to jail," La Rocca said.
Wal-Mart officials said they were using resources to focus on organized theft rings involving high-dollar losses because it simply was not efficient to prosecute most petty shoplifters.
They say this puts them in line with other retailers and will reduce the burden on local police.
"I believe monitoring the success of the project will really tell the tale, so to speak, of whether it's going to be effective or whether they may at some point make adjustments to that policy," said Police Chief Walter Kimble of Rockaway, N.J.
Wal-Mart warns shoplifters that the new policy is not an invitation to steal and says thieves are still more likely to get caught in its stores than anywhere else.
ABC News' Elisabeth Leamy reported this story for "Good Morning America."