JBSA-FORT SAM HOUSTON –
Step outside any of the Army and Air Force Exchange Service facilities on Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston without paying for merchandise in your possession and it will cost you a lot more than what the item is worth.
Shoplifting is taken very seriously by AAFES management, explained Larry Martin, loss prevention manager for JBSA-Fort Sam Houston, JBSA-Camp Bullis and Camp Mabury in Austin, Texas.
Martin's stores include the Exchanges, the P-Xtras, Class-Six stores, Clothing Sales, the gas stations, Einstein's Bagels, Patch Express in the mini-mall, Popeye's Chicken, Subway, Burger King and Godfather's Pizza.
During the eight years he has been doing this job, Martin has learned how to quickly recognize and apprehend thieves and wants to let customers and employees know there are stiff penalties for shoplifting and that shoplifters will be caught.
When you are caught shoplifting, you could be barred from all Exchange facilities, from the installation and face criminal charges. Shoplifting could drastically affect or even end a military or civilian career.
There is also an automatic $200 civil recovery fee charged to shoplifters that offsets the cost of maintenance on the array of security cameras and digital recorders in the stores.
"It doesn't matter if you stole a 25-cent beef jerky or a $1,000 TV," Martin said.
Eighty-five digital cameras are in place throughout the Main Exchange on JBSA-Fort Sam Houston, recording all areas of the store - except for the dressing rooms - around the clock, seven days a week, Martin explained.
The cameras are connected to closed-circuit televisions monitored by the loss prevention manager or one of a team of loss prevention detectives. These cameras rotate 360 degrees and can zoom in so closely that numbers on a receipt or instructions on a label can be read. Both customers and employees are observed.
"Even when we're not looking at them, the cameras are still recording," Martin said. "We know our hot spots and what people like to steal. They think we can't see, but we know where they try to hide the stuff."
Shoplifters will sometimes remove an item from its packaging and then discard the box and wrappings somewhere inside the store, thinking they are evading tripping store alarms by the electronic tags. Martin and his team of detectives are able to pursue these thieves as well using camera footage.
If footage is needed for a case, it will be burned to a CD and kept as long as necessary.
"I actually caught a lady more than a year after she stole a purse - several purses. They were stuffed one into another," Martin said. "I was watching the camera and she came walking in again and we picked her up. We have a long memory."
Video games and high-end women's purses used to be the merchandise of choice until the electronic tags were installed. Now it's mainly jewelry, cologne and clothing items, Martin said.
Last year, 79 shoplifters were caught on JBSA-Fort Sam Houston.
"We catch quite a few active duty students here and that's quite a surprise to me," Martin said.
Shoplifting usually peaks when school lets out during Spring Break. It also picks up between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
"I stopped a little girl once and her comment to her mom was, 'Well, that was your Christmas gift.'"
The largest item Martin witnessed a shoplifter try to leave the store with was a 50-inch TV.
"They walked out the door with it. They didn't stop at the register; they just kept going. So we followed and met them outside the door."
Plain clothes detectives patrol the Main Exchange looking for suspicious activity. The detectives, who are exchange safety and security associates, are AAFES employees and certified via professional training.
"They look like housewives, retired people, some even look young," Martin said. "They are totally undercover and the only time people find out about the security team is when they walk out the door."
"We don't let people walk out the door with merchandise and we look for safety issues," said Tonya Morin, one of the detectives on the floor at JBSA-Fort Sam Houston Main Exchange.
When a detective witnesses an incident, he or she detains the shoplifter and invites that person to the office, where security forces are called. If a shoplifter resists, the detective reports the incident to security forces, noting as much detail as possible about the person.
Thieves have also been caught entering the store after hours. One morning, employees found ceiling tiles collapsed on the floor. After reviewing camera footage, the interloper was spied falling through the ceiling and his hideout was located.
The raccoon was humanely removed and placed back into the wild at JBSA-Camp Bullis, but there was no mistaking he was a thief, Martin said.
"He had a mask on."