Retailers and U.S. law-enforcement agencies have joined forces in an effort to combat the growing problem of organized retail theft. The National Retail Federation (NRF; www.nrf.com) and the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA; www.retail-leaders.org), in collaboration with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI; www.fbi.gov), have teamed up to launch the Law Enforcement Retail Partnership Network (LERPnet; www.lerpnet.com), a secure national database that allows retailers to share information. LERPnet, which has been in development for the last 2 years, officially launched on April 9, with dozens of retailers currently using it to track criminal activities and more waiting to be trained. To date, 32 retailers representing more than 46,000 stores have signed on to participate, and 16,000 organized retail-theft incidents are already included in the system. Law-enforcement personnel will be able to access LERPnet this summer through Law Enforcement Online (www.leo.gov).
The impetus for this initiative stemmed from industry concerns and legislation to get some action. Based on concerns of the retail industry and the FBI, Congress passed legislation signed by the president in January 2006 that required the attorney general and the FBI, in consultation with the retail community, to establish a task force to combat organized retail theft. The task force, initiated in 2006, is currently staffed by Department of Justice and FBI personnel and has worked closely with the NRF and the RILA to build LERPnet.
The system was designed by an advisory team that represented all segments of retail, including drug store, supermarket, mass merchant, home improvement, apparel, department, and specialty stores—with input from federal and local law-enforcement agencies. Its existence stems from a broad public-private partnership that is actually rather remarkable in scope and execution.
FBI Supervisory Special Agent Brian Nadeau, program manager for the FBI’s Organized Retail Theft program, called LERPnet "a vision of the retail community that will help solve a $30 billion a year problem." He said: "LERPnet should make it easier for the law enforcement community to track organized retail crime groups and their string of criminal conduct. This database will create a stronger partnership between retailers and law enforcement to tackle a growing problem and disrupt criminal organizations."
"LERPnet allows retailers and the Law Enforcement community to create a true public/private partnership to address significant criminal activity that not only costs consumers and retailer’s billons of dollars, but causes a significant life safety issue," said Tim O’Connor, RILA vice president of asset protection. "LERPnet is a proactive and an analytical tool that allows retailers to collaborate with each other as well as law enforcement officials; we can better protect our stores, our brands, our employees and most importantly, our customers."
Last year, NRF and RILA launched their own retail crime databases—RILA’s InfoShare and NRF’s RLPIN. LERPnet now represents the next evolution of these compilations and builds on those efforts. More importantly, merchants hadn’t shared information with each other—and now they will.
Here’s a hypothetical example of how LERPnet might work, according to information on the site. Retailer A has 40 laptops stolen. Later that afternoon, the same criminals enter a neighboring state along the same highway corridor and steal dozens of notebook computers from Retailer B. Along the same highway in a different county, Retailer C is victimized that evening. With LERPnet, Retailers A, B, and C will be able to enter each incident separately into the system and allow other users to communicate with other companies and law enforcement about crimes occurring in their stores. Companies can report the theft and include information about suspects, getaway vehicles, and identification numbers of stolen products. In their reports, retailers can also include photos and video footage to assist in the detention and prosecution of criminals. Immediately, retailers and law enforcement should be able to connect the incidents and suspects to the similar crimes.
The system uses a secure Web interface (requiring three-level authentication) for data entry, viewing, and queries of incidents. Data can be imported from virtually any database, and LERPnet already links to some case-management software programs. Retailers can set email alerts to be notified of retail crimes in their areas, search through reported incidents, or flag and monitor the sale of merchandise available on online auction sites. An unlimited number of users in subscribing companies can participate.
Some big-name companies have still not joined the effort. Best Buy, Circuit City, and Wal-Mart are members of RILA, but they reportedly have not yet agreed to participate in LERPnet. The cost for a retailer to participate is $1,200 per year. There are also some setup fees. There’s no charge for law-enforcement agencies.
According to NRF’s 2006 Organized Retail Crime survey, 81 percent of retailers said they have been victims of organized retail crime. Nearly half (48 percent) of those polled also have seen an increase in organized retail crime activity in their stores. With widespread adoption of the LERPnet system, retailers and society in general should begin to see real progress in fighting illegal activities, loss of merchandise, and the overall dangers and cost caused by criminal organizations. One blogger, who commented on the power of communication, wrote, "A lot of other industries and law enforcement agencies should follow this example."
LERPnet looks like a win-win situation for everyone involved—except the crooks.