By Phil Wahba
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Sophisticated technology, less staff at stores and more gang activity are all contributing to more U.S. stores being hit by organized crime, according to a survey by an industry group.
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Of 129 retailers, primarily national store chains, surveyed this spring by the National Retail Federation, 94.5 percent said they were victimized by organized criminals in the past year. And 84.8 percent said the problem has only worsened in the past three years.
The NRF said cutbacks of security employees, the desire for low prices by consumers and the ease of selling stolen goods online or at pawn shops all contributed to the problem. NRF members range from Macy's Inc to mom-and-pop shops.
"Shoppers are conditioned to look for a deal," a senior NRF advisor, Joe LaRocca, told Reuters.
LaRocca said consumers do not actively seek stolen goods, but the appetite for low prices has spurred demand.
"Thieves are looking for highly desirable, easily resold items," he said.
In contrast to shoplifting, organized crime involves people conspiring to steal merchandise, often between distribution centers and stores, and reselling rather than keeping items for their own use.
Shoplifting and theft cost retailers 1.6 percent of sales, or $32 billion in 2009, the last year for which data is available, the NRF said.
That does not include the damage from hits on cargo, or merchandise that has not yet reached stores.
The NRF's annual survey included questions about cargo theft for the first time and found that just under half of retailers, 49.6 percent, had been struck by this kind of theft.
Criminals are also growing more violent when caught by store employees. Some 13 percent of in-store apprehensions lead to violence such as assault, the survey found.
The NRF's seventh annual survey was conducted between April 19 and May 10 and was answered by senior loss prevention executives.
With the struggling economy, LaRocca said demand for stolen goods could remain strong.
"The weak economy has pushed consumers to look for better prices. Organized retail crime groups capitalize on that desperation," he added.
(Reporting by Phil Wahba; editing by Andre Grenon)