A South Carolina retailers' group says the Palmetto State is a haven for professional shoplifters because it has the weakest laws for retail theft in the Southeast.
That's why the S.C. Retail Association advocates two bills [H. 3602] [S. 0471] that would increase penalties for shoplifters and also make it a crime to switch price tags and fraudulently obtain refunds. The main goal is to stop those who shoplift for a living, sometimes working in organized teams.
Under the state's current laws, shoplifting is not a felony unless the value of the merchandise stolen exceeds $2,000 -- the highest threshold in the Southeast, according to Lindsey Kueffner, the retail association's executive director.
"This means thieves can steal up to $1,999 in merchandise day after day and only be charged with a misdemeanor," she said.
Though Kueffner said it's impossible to tell how much organized retail crime costs the state, the association's data show that about $420 million in merchandise is stolen each year. That translates to $25 million in lost sales-tax revenue, she said.
The association gathered data from its members to work with lawmakers on crafting bills in the S.C. General Assembly, Kueffner said.
Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner said professional shoplifters have also struck locally -- particularly at the Tanger Outlet Centers in greater Bluffton.
The outlets have been targeted by professional shoplifters from Georgia for several years, he said.
"These people do this for a living," he said.
Tanger general manager LaDonna Shamlou declined to comment on the bills or professional shoplifters targeting the outlets. She directed questions to the Sheriff's Office.
Law enforcement officers recognize shoplifters who steal for a living in a variety of ways, Tanner said. Many wear clothing designed to conceal stolen items, he said.
The shoplifters resell the merchandise at roadside markets or flea markets, to private parties, online or to illegitimate wholesale distributors. According to the FBI, organized retail crime costs the nation about $30 billion a year.
In December, four people the Sheriff's Office said were professional shoplifters stole 25 purses from the Michael Kors store in Tanger Outlet Center 1 before leading law enforcement on a high-speed chase that turned deadly. The suspects, all from the Savannah area, crashed into a tree in Jasper County, killing a 19-year-old female passenger. The three others were soon arrested and now face felony shoplifting charges.
The bills in S.C. General Assembly wouldn't increase the price threshold for felony shoplifting. However, they would allow prosecutors to aggregate all the merchandise a shoplifter steals over a 90-day period, in any county, and charge suspects with one felony shoplifting count.
The bills would make it illegal to remove or alter a bar code to get a cheaper price on an item, and would make it illegal to seek a refund by using a fraudulent or altered driver's license or ID card.
The punishment for a felony shoplifting conviction would be up to 10 years in prison and a $5,000 fine. Current shoplifting law states the maximum punishment is five years in prison and a $1,000 fine.
Tanner supports the bill and said he'd rather shoplifters be jailed than fined.
"You've got to make the penalty harsh enough to act as a deterrent without the typical customer being the person coming up with the lost revenue," Tanner said.
The bills made it through the House in time for the May 1 crossover date and are in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Committee chairman Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, is a sponsor of the Senate versions. Attempts last week to reach him for comment were unsuccessful.