Originally created 01/22/06

Businesses fight employee theft

Melissa Barajas trusted all her employees. Then money went missing.

The owner of the Mi Rancho restaurant chain became suspicious and had a camera installed in her Martinez location, and her fears soon proved true.

Four of her employees - including a manager - were suspected of stealing money. After a confrontation, two quit immediately and Ms. Barajas terminated the other two.

She estimates losing thousands of dollars, though she doesn't know how long this went on without her knowing.

"We've been in business 10 years, and I never thought (employee theft) would be such a problem," she said.

It is. Theft by employees is the biggest security concern that U.S. companies face, according to a recent survey by ASIS International, a Virginia-based security trade organization.

It's also the security risk with the greatest loss potential, said Emblez Longoria, the group's chairman for the Crime and Loss Prevention Council.

"It's pretty difficult for someone to walk into any establishment and walk out with a TV," he said. "It's a lot easier (for) someone knows the intricate workings of that business."

Roger Guerrero, the owner of Martinez-based Above All Video Surveillance and Repair, estimates 75 percent of a company's losses can be attributed to employee theft. Even so, Mr. Longoria said, tracking employee theft is difficult because many companies choose not to report it for reasons ranging from embarrassment to court costs for prosecution.

It's been a year since Ms. Barajas installed a hidden camera and four visible cameras in her store to deter theft. Missing money hasn't been a problem since, she said, adding that she primarily uses the cameras to monitor customer service rather than theft.

Behind that camera, however, someone is still watching.

Mr. Guerrero monitors Ms. Barajas' cameras for suspicious activity via broadband connection.

The former firefighter and security manager for Target stores now makes a living helping businesses stop or prevent theft.

He installs visible cameras as a more preventative measure but has also used hidden "pinhole cameras" to bust people such as Ms. Barajas' former employees.

After someone is caught on video, he interrogates the suspect to get a confession that could lead to an arrest.

The Richmond County Sheriff's Office handles about five to six employee theft complaints a month, said Phil Stahler, an investigator in the technical crimes division.

Last week, Mr. Stahler investigated a cafeteria manager accused of stealing $41,000 from Doctors Hospital. She reportedly took the money from deposit bags she was responsible for. According to the incident report, the woman admitted to the theft and was fired in August. Doctors Hospital did not immediately file a report, while it attempted to research when the thefts occurred.

Not all cases go so smoothly.

"Admission is fine, but you have to have some other means to corroborate it," Mr. Stahler said.

In many cases, this is a paper trail or a video.

Cameras are permitted in the workplace "anywhere that there is not a reasonable expectation for privacy," said lawyer Tim Moses, a partner with Hull Towill Norman Barrett & Salley in Augusta.

Restrooms, locker rooms and changing rooms, for instance, are off limits. Use of audio is prohibited by federal law, he said.

Unfortunately, many business don't invest in security equipment until theft already is detected, said Phillip Bell, the owner of Bell Security in North Augusta. Even after the fact, a security system can reveal some interesting things, he said.

"I had a client who thought he had one problem. He had three," Mr. Bell said.

The cost of setting up a surveillance system varies from $200 for a low-quality camera to several thousand for a multicamera system with Internet capabilities and a large hard drive for storing video.

Some companies elect to simply install a tinted dome to deter thieves, who won't know whether a camera is there, Mr. Bell said. Some people spare the expense and try using fake cameras.

Ms. Barajas, is content with investing the money in outfitting all of her Mi Rancho restaurants with multicamera security systems. If they prevent future loss, it's worth the cost.

"I feel safer," she said.

Reach Tony Lombardo at (706) 823-3227 or tony.lombardo@augustachronicle.com.

Fighting employee theft

- Reduce the opportunity. Lock important files and money away. Lock your desk and log off your computer.

- Business owners should have a clear, written policy that discusses the consequences of theft. Employees should be given this policy.

- Visible cameras discourage theft, and hidden cameras can catch an employee in the act.

- Keep your employees under supervision when possible.

- Urge employees to report internal theft.

- Keep an accurate inventory of products and do periodic checks.

- Track the possession of expensive items used in the business.

- Take it seriously. Address even small thefts, such as pens and pencils, because they could progress to a bigger problem.

Source: ASIS International


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