CRIME TIME

March 18, 2002

An exclusive survey finds shoplifters are the chief criminal element in community pharmacy

 

COVER STORY

CRIME TIME

An exclusive survey finds shoplifters are the chief criminal element in community pharmacy

Shoplifting is the most common criminal activity reported in community pharmacies, and the old five-finger discount seems to be on the rise, according to an exclusive Drug Topics survey of independent and chain drugstore pharmacists.

Fortunately, crime is not one of the adrenaline pumpers that already overloaded and overstressed pharmacists have to keep top-of-mind. That's the good news from our survey distributed last December, which elicited a 25% response from a random sample of 700 pharamacists.

While 60% of community pharmacies were victimized by shoplifters during the past two years, only 34% had a rogue employee who made off with merchandise or cash. However, 44% of chains reported employee theft, compared with 18% of independents. Only one out of 10 of our community pharmacy respondents had been robbed, and even fewer (6%) had to contend with an armed robbery.

Break-in artists hit 14% of our community pharmacy respondents, but when those were broken down by setting, more independents (18%) than chains (7%) were targeted by burglars. Just 14% of all respondents said their pharmacy had been vandalized. And only one chain respondent's store had been torched by an arsonist.

Drugstore crime, for the most part, has not been a growth industry during the past two years as compared with the prior two years, according to our respondents. Except for shoplifting, most of the crime categories held steady. For example, 71% of our respondents said that there's been no change in employee thefts, 77% saw no difference in break-in activity, 79% said robberies were the same, and 90% experienced no more armed robberies.

Shoplifting was the crime category that more community pharmacies singled out as a trouble spot. Among independents, 35% said shoplifting had increased during the past two years, compared with 44% at the chains. The regions with the highest shoplifting growth rate were the South (47%) and the Midwest (44%), compared with 29% in the East and 21% in the West. On the flip side, 7% of independents and 9% of chains actually reported a decrease in shoplifting.

Getting the goods

What criminals make off with is appar-ently limited only by the pharmacy's stock and the thief's boldness. If something is on the shelf, someone will probably try to steal it sooner or later. But our respondents found some products surprisingly more enticing than others. Several reported that glucose test strips are often magnets for shoplifters. For example, one New York chain pharmacist said that three normal-looking, quiet customers came into his store. He added that within 30 minutes, "they took all the diabetic strips, worth over $1,000. The police caught them at another store down the road. We did press charges against those people."

One Mississippi chain pharmacist took pity on a young man who had an obviously pressing problem. The unsuccessful shoplifter "tried to steal a pregnancy test for his teenage girlfriend to use," said the R.Ph. "He promised to come back and pay for it, so we did not prosecute. He did come back and pay the next day."

Condoms are also high on the shoplifter's must-have list, but cigarettes, which have become very pricey in many areas, are also a favorite of the light- fingered crowd. Then there's the ever-popular pseudoephedrine, a key raw ingredient for entrepreneurs running methamphetamine labs.

The cough and cold section is the criminal's destination of choice when looking at a store's planogram, according to 31% of our chain respondents and 15% of independents. Other departments with high pilferage potential include beauty aids, which were singled out by 25% of chains and 18% of independents. Criminals with a sweet tooth or an attack of the munchies apparently favor independents; 20% of those respondents named the candy and snack section as a trouble spot, compared with only 9% of chains.

The pharmacy department is more frequently the scene of the crime in independent outlets than in chains. Nearly one-quarter of independents cited the pharmacy as the department most likely to be hit, compared with 10% of chains.

When Larcenous Larry or Lucy comes into the pharmacy department, it's often to try to pass a bogus script. Attempts to palm off forged prescriptions were encountered during the previous two years by 89% of our chain and 70% of our independent respondents. Not surprisingly, urban (84%) and suburban (83%) pharmacists were more likely to encounter Rx forgeries than were their country cousins (65%). The West (86%) and South (83%) were more likely to encounter forgeries, compared with 71% in the Midwest and 68% in the East.

Top honors for the Rx drug most likely to be scammed went to Vicodin/Vicodin ES, which was cited by 35% of chains and 34% of independents as the one drug favored by forgers. The much- ballyhooed rise of OxyContin has not made its way onto the forger's list nationwide. Only 10% of chains and 8% of independents reported that the so-called Hill-billy heroin was the drug of choice. The regions that rated OxyContin as the forgery favorite were the East (21%) and South (11%), which reflect the areas with the highest reported incidence of abuse.

OxyContin is a favorite at a Pennsylvania independent pharmacy where folks do sometimes try to walk out without paying for their prescriptions. "Cost is the motivating factor as far as I'm concerned," commented the pharmacist. "We now escort these Rxs to the register. The customers don't handle them until they have paid."

An Alabama pharmacist said his chain cut the availability of OxyContin. "If we don't have it, we can't fill it," he said. "They would do almost anything to get it!"

Other controlled substances that were mentioned as the one drug most likely to attract forgers included hydrocodone (17% of respondents), Percocet (10%), and Lortab (9%).

Crime does pay

Shoplifting may not rank high on the crime severity scale, but all that pilfering adds up, according to our respondents. With an average of 13 shoplifting incidents during the previous two years, independent pharmacies lost an average of $1,433. Chains, which fell victim an average of 59 times, were even harder hit, losing an average of $8,411 to shoplifters.

Inside jobs pulled by employees also drained profits during the past two years. Even though independents were bilked by workers, on average, only two times, the damages amounted to $1,772. Chains likewise reported only two employee thefts during the previous two years, but the average cost was $1,170.

Only 10 independents and eight chains fell victim to robberies. The robbers made off with only $87 on average among independents and $326 among chains that reported such crimes. Thankfully, armed robbery was rare, with only four independents and six chains reporting such an encounter of the criminal kind. However, when a robber did pull a weapon, the average take from independents was $531, compared with $1,128 from chains.

Break-ins netted an average of $490 among independents and $207 among chains. Only one chain outlet was torched, but the arson carried a $1,300 price tag. Vandalism cost independents an average of $770, while chains tallied average losses of $2,169.

Who are the perps?

Juveniles were fingered as the main perpetrators of crimes against pharmacies by 43% of chains and 44% of independents. Teenagers were the top suspects, according to 50% of our respondents in the West, 48% in the Midwest, 37% in the South, and 39% in the East. However, 54% of rural pharmacies singled out juveniles as their main criminal element, compared with 35% of urban and 40% of suburban pharmacies.

Common criminals were also cited as perpetrators by 22% of independents and 31% of chains. In addition to these criminals, 20% of independents and 21% of chains singled out drug addicts as bad news.

Some not-so-loyal employees are another source of crime, according to 8% of independents and 11% of chains. Several commented on employees who pilfered merchandise and drugs or who gave themselves an instant raise by rifling the cash drawer.

A video surveillance camera and fingerprints tripped up a technician caught stealing large quantities of Schedule III drugs in a Connecticut independent pharmacy. A chain pharmacist in Kentucky said that a technician who had worked for the pharmacy 11 years was caught stealing narcotics when the security camera nailed her. She was prosecuted and sent to jail.

About half of the criminals who targeted pharmacies and drugstores acted alone. One-third recruited a partner in crime, while 16% found strength in numbers of three or more. Among urban criminals, 62% acted alone, compared with 42% of suburban and 49% of rural perps. Western operators were more often lone bad guys (59%), compared with 41% in the East at the other extreme of the togetherness scale.

True crime stories

Crime is not an everyday occurrence in America's pharmacies and drugstores, thank goodness. Sometimes, however, individuals with larceny in their hearts do intrude on the relatively tranquil work environment, putting aside the occasions when the pharmacist wants to reach into the phone and strangle the person on the pharmacy benefit manager help desk.

At high noon, a masked armed robber rushed into a Florida community pharmacy. Brandishing his pistol, he herded all four employees into the restroom, took what he wanted, and was gone in three minutes flat, reported one respondent.

A Minnesota chain pharmacist's relief stint led to an encounter with two armed robbers who had followed him from the pharmacy to the motel where he was staying. The gunmen demanded that he return to the pharmacy. He was able to convince them that, as a relief R.Ph., he didn't have a key. "Visually, they were definitely addict types, nervous, hyper, knew what they were doing," the pharmacist said. "They tore out the motel phone before leaving and were never caught to my knowledge." The pharmacist asked that his name not be used because "my family doesn't know and would be worried about possible future events."

Another unsolved crime involved robbers who didn't know their pharmaceuticals, generically speaking. To gain access to the pharmacy, the robbers had to smash the glass doors to the mall and the glass doors to the pharmacy itself. Once inside, they ignored the register's open till with $100 in plain sight and made a beeline for the drug stocks. Apparently, the only prize worth taking was Lorcet. However, "it was dark, and we think they grabbed the Lorazepam by mistake," said the North Dakota independent pharmacist, who added that the pharmacy stocks only generic Lorcet.

One unfortunate Kentucky chain pharmacy got a double whammy from a burglar. It wasn't enough that the bad guy broke in through the ceiling and snatched nearly all the Schedule II drugs, he added insult to injury by setting the pharmacy on fire to hide the crime, thus committing arson on top of burglary.

A chain drugstore in Florida had an unwelcome visit from two armed robbers who shot at the ceiling to intimidate the people in the store. Then everyone was ordered to lie on the floor, but not before an employee had opened the narcotic safe and cash register.

A California independent pharmacist recounted the tale of a break-in artist who got into the store through the roof duct to avoid breaking the detection beams of the alarm system. After swiping only Schedule II drugs, the perp encountered double-barred doors and had to exit the same way he came in. Perhaps it was some consolation to the victims that in his haste to make good his escape, he cut himself badly on the metal ducts.

Crime fighters

In the war against criminals, which can cost retailers billions of dollars every year, most pharmacies have armed themselves with some antitheft devices. The most popular device in the community pharmacy's arsenal is the alarm system, which is employed by 89% of independents and 92% of chains. Among urban and suburban stores, the use of alarms was 91%, compared with 85% of rural outlets. Geographically, 95% of our Southern respondents have alarms, compared with 90% in the West, 89% in the East, and 83% in the Midwest.

The closed-circuit camera is another high-tech tool that has found favor with about one-third of independents and 59% of chains. Perhaps not feeling as threatened by the criminal crowd, only 17% of rural pharmacies use closed-circuit cameras, compared with 51% of their urban and 59% of suburban counterparts.

Among independents, 37% have installed a panic button that transmits an SOS to the local police if trouble walks through the door. Only 14% of chains use such panic buttons. On the other hand, employing security guards was feasible for only 4% of independents, compared with 18% of chains.

Putting certain controlled substances under lock and key is an anticrime tactic employed by 48% of independents and 72% of chains. Keeping certain drugs with high trouble potential off the inventory altogether is favored by 23% of independents but only 10% of chains.

Barely half of our respondents said their staff has received training in how to respond when a crime is going down in the store. Interestingly, 61% of Southern respondents said they've been trained, but only 38% of their Western counterparts received such instruction.

Employees who received training were taught the ins and outs of proper crime etiquette by store management or personnel, according to 90% of our independent and 97% of our chain respondents. Only 14% of independents and 5% of chains brought in the local police department personnel for training sessions.

Beefing up their security figures in the 2002 plans of only 14% of independents and 7% of chains. The most frequently cited extra measure was installation of closed-circuit cameras, which was noted by 46% of the independents and 40% of chains planning to add to their anticrime efforts. While no independents said they plan to stop carrying certain drugs, 40% of the chains plan to kick some drugs off their inventory list. Panic buttons are the addition of choice among 15% of independents and 20% of chains. Putting bulletproof glass around the pharmacy looks like a winner to 20% of chains but only 8% of independents.

The top rationale for extra expenditures on security was just a desire to be proactive, according to 69% of independents but only 25% of chains. Outmoded or inoperative security already in the store was cited by 50% of chains as the leading reason for adding to their arsenal of security measures.

From the front lines

Pharmacists are no strangers to crime; 60% of our respondents said they have been on the scene during the commission of a crime. What part of the country you practice in may determine your odds of being an unwilling participant in some felon's day on the job. For example, 68% of Eastern R.Ph.s have witnessed a crime in their store, but only 48% of their Western peers have been so unfortunate.

Despite being in the line of fire, so to speak, the vast majority of our community pharmacist respondents are not afraid to go to work. Only 16% of independents and 25% of chains admitted to being edgy about their own safety when they're on the job. Geographically, more Eastern R.Ph.s (27%) are fearful, compared with 13% in the South, 20% in the Midwest, and 10% in the West. The higher fear factor among Eastern pharmacists may reflect their greater experience as eyewitnesses to crime.

Lowering a pharmacy's chance of becoming a scene of the crime doesn't always mean putting all your faith in high-tech gadgets alone, according to some of our respondents. They advise being constantly aware of what's going on in the store and what the customers are up to. "Try to make eye contact and speak to or greet everyone," said an independent pharmacist in Pennsylvania.

Some pharmacists apparently live up to the old bumper sticker motto: "Security provided by Smith & Wesson." Several of our respondents indicated they have purchased guns, including a shotgun. An independent pharmacist in Pennsylvania said she packs a .38 Special pistol. Several also mentioned having a permit to carry a concealed weapon. "I have a loaded firearm handy," said one Louisiana independent R.Ph. "I hope I never have to use it, but I will if I have to." Firepower may give some security, but a North Dakota independent pharmacist prefers the low-tech comfort of a club within easy reach.

Some pharmacies find strength in numbers, suggesting that its wise to have a buddy around to discourage the ethically challenged who walk among us. Several said the employees leave the store together when it's quitting time. And another bit of advice came from an Alabama chain pharmacist, who said, "Do not stop shoplifters, because I've seen them get physically violent."

An Iowa independent whose biggest crime threat is shoplifting juveniles uses a low-tech security measure. He limits the number of kids permitted in his store at any one time.

While her chain's security personnel handle shoplifters, a Washington pharmacist urged other pharmacists to give robbers whatever they want. "There is nothing in the entire store worth losing your life over," she added.

Not stocking certain drugs or telling would-be patients that the pharmacy is out of a product are ways to discourage drug seekers with phony Rxs. They're probably not going to waste their time trying to scam a pharmacy that says it doesn't have the desired goodies in the first place.

"At some locations in our chain, I have worn a bulletproof vest I was given by a police friend," commented a Wisconsin chain pharmacist. A Pennsylvania chain R.Ph. said, "I park near a streetlight, just in case of potential robbery situations."

When asked what steps have been taken for on-the-job protection, one Florida chain pharmacist of the fatalist persuasion commented, "Nothing. I can't carry a gun, can I? Just life insurance."

Crime comes in many guises, and it's not always apparent who is the real criminal element, according to a Minnesota independent pharmacist. Comparing current third-party reimbursement rates to banditry, he said, "What's the difference if the HMO takes $4 or your employee takes $4 out of the register or someone comes in your store with a gun and tells you to give him $4? Sounds simplistic, but which one is the criminal act?"

A fascinating take on crimes committed against pharmacy, but that's a story for another day.

 

Table 1
I fear for my safety in my store

SettingYes
Independent16%
Chain25
Urban32%
Suburban20
Rural7
East27%
South13
Midwest20
West10

 

Table 2
Did some crimes increase during the past two years?

Crime% of independents reporting increase% of chains reporting increase
Shoplifting35%44%
Employee theft1926
Robbery2218
Armed robbery514
Break-ins2414
Arson03
Vandalism2214
Other33

 

Table 3
Yes, my pharmacy pursues prosecution of Rx forgers

Setting%
Independents59%
Chains64
Urban59
Suburban59
Rural76
East65
South63
Midwest68
West69

 

Table 4
The Rx forgers’ drug of choice

Drug% of independents% of chains
Vicodin/Vicodin ES34%35%
OxyContin810
Percocet1210
Lortab513
Tylenol with codeine (#3)35
Hydrocodone products1519
All others2310

 

Table 5
Top security measures in use

Security measure% of independents% of chains
Alarm system89%92%
Some narcotics locked up4872
Closed-circuit cameras3259
Police panic button3714
Don’t carry certain drugs2310
Security guards418

 

Table 6
Crime costs during past two years

CrimeAverage cost per independent reporting such crimesAverage cost per chain reporting such crimes
Shoplifting$1,433$8,411
Employee theft1,7721,170
Robbery87326
Armed robbery531*1,128*
Break-ins490207
Arson01,300*
Vandalism770*2,169*
Other crimes1,834*99*

 

Carol Ukens

 



Carol Ukens. CRIME TIME.

Drug Topics

2002;6:35.