San Francisco police fight the Sopranos of shoplifting 

Police are battling a rise in retail thefts in Union Square committed by well-organized crime syndicates. The sophisticated groups employ shoplifting experts with intricate methods for nabbing loot from stores and reselling it on the street, police said.

These groups, some with gang affiliations, can include "boosters," who steal the merchandise, and "fence operators," who find ways to sell it, police said.

Some boosters enter stores armed with foil-lined shopping bags and purses to combat the security sensors. Others use nail clippers to snip off tags, fake receipts to make cash returns and stolen or cloned credit cards to purchase merchandise, police said.

They steal souvenirs, razors, cellphones, clothing — you name it. The items end up sold on the street, online or in flea markets Bay Area-wide, police said.

"These guys are professionals," Tenderloin Police Station Capt. Joe Garrity said. "They’re not the person stealing a shirt from Macy’s or candy bar from the store."

For the past several years, this brand of organized crime has been on the rise both locally and nationally, Garrity said.

Tenderloin police have been launching stings to nab thieves selling items on the streets. The enforcement effort has boosted the station’s arrests for retail burglary theft by 53 percent this year, the police captain said.

SFPD is working with many of the major stores — including Macy’s, Gap, Walgreens and Nordstrom’s — to deter thefts. They also have met with police in New York City and Sacramento to share strategies on dismantling the crime syndicates, Garrity said.

The smaller boutique stores are more vulnerable to the thefts, Garrity said, since they lack the security personnel and technology employed by larger stores.

Organized retail crime costs U.S. retailers up to $30 billion annually, according to the National Retail Federation, which releases an annual report on the brand of theft.

Garrity said police stings are intensive and require a lot of manpower. But he said his station does not plan to stop enforcement efforts, adding that the latest police sting in the Union Square area was launched just last week.

Retailers in the Union Square area told The San Francisco Examiner about the various types of organized shoplifting hitting their stores.

The manager of a boutique clothing store — who wished to remain nameless — said thieves with intricate shoplifting tools often hit the larger department stores. But the area’s small upscale retailers, she said, are often targeted by more aggressive teenage thieves.

As many as eight girls will storm the smaller stores and brazenly steal, then flee in waiting getaway cars, she said.

"They also monitor [security] guards’ breaks," the manager said.

Gus Harputs, who runs the family-owned Harputs boutique on Post Street, said many stores in the area, including his, are hit regularly. Some thieves come in groups on BART to shoplift, Harputs said.

"Many of the shoplifters are like magicians at stealing," Harputs said.

maldax@sfexaminer.com

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