By Ken Krivacic, OD, MBA
Dec. 14, 2022
As a practice owner for over 30 years, I experienced all the ups and downs that come with running a practice. One of the less enjoyable aspects of practice ownership is preventing theft, and managing it when it happens.
Here is what I learned from my own experience, and research, about making theft in your office unlikely, and what to do if it occurs.
How Common is Theft In Businesses?
More than $13 billion worth of goods are stolen from retailers each year, according to The National Association for Shoplifting Prevention (NASP) That’s more than $35 million worth of merchandise stolen from retailers every day. With numbers that high, it’s no wonder businesses are seeking ideas for reducing the risk of shoplifting and other commercial burglaries.1
Theft comes in many different forms: customer theft, employee theft, ID theft and cyberattacks. We have experienced all of those. What can you do to help prevent theft, and what can you do after the theft has happened? Let’s discuss each category.
Customer theft has occurred in our office numerous times. It can be as simple as a shoplifter taking a few frames to something as devastating as a “smash and grab.”
According to score.org, there are six things you can do to prevent customer theft via shoplifting:
- Make eye contact. It’s not only good customer service to greet shoppers as soon as they walk in the door, but it also shows a would-be shoplifter you run a store with an alert and engaged staff. Make sure employees know to check on browsing customers regularly, as most shoplifting occurs as a crime of opportunity.
- Look for tell-tale signs. Tell employees to look for shoppers with large coats or loose clothing. Other tools of the trade include closed umbrellas where smaller items can easily be slipped in, baby strollers and shopping bags from other stores. Institute a store policy to leave shopping bags and backpacks in a safe designated area of the store, such as behind the register. Also, be aware of large groups entering a store at the same time. Shoplifting “flash mobs” enter a store together, quickly grab what they can, and run back out of the store before retailers know what hit them.
- Display higher-end frames in certain areas. After several thefts, we moved our higher-end frames to displays that were under lock and key. If a patient wanted to try them on, an optician had to help. You can also move those displays closer to where employees are stationed such as the front desk or an in-office lab.
- Lights, Cameras, Action! There are numerous easy-to-install security cameras on the market today to keep an eye on shoppers when you can’t. Post signage revealing your property is under 24/7 surveillance to discourage shoplifting and break-ins. Make sure all areas of the store (inside and out) are well-lit. Motion detection lights are helpful after closing time to discourage criminals looking for dark places to break in.
- Keep it clean. It’s hard to notice when items go missing when shelves and counters are cluttered and disorganized. Consider only setting out a certain number of any one item and keeping the rest in the stock room, so you can keep better track of your inventory. Outside areas should be clean and tidy. Keeping trees and bushes away from access points makes it hard for burglars to break in without being seen.
- Go high-tech. Anti-theft solutions run the gamut from security film that makes it harder to break windows to facial recognition systems that alert store owners when a known shoplifter has entered the store. In the middle are tagging systems tied to register activity.1
Throughout our practice history, we had several “smash and grabs.” These all occurred after midnight. In three of the cases, it appeared the thieves had been in our office before because they wasted no time going to specific frame lines. They knew they had less than seven minutes because we had an alarm system that alerted our security service once glass was broken. The police could get there in about seven minutes once the alarm went off.
We added a few barriers to make this type of crime more difficult.
One was the previously mentioned alarm system. The criminal knows they have a limited time and have to act quickly. This would prevent them from roaming the office for longer periods of time where they could steal even more valuable items such as TVs, cash and optometric equipment.
Second, we always put cash at the end of the day into a locked, secure, and not obvious, safe place away from the front of the office.
Third, since most of our thefts occurred by smashing in the front glass door, we added a security film that makes it much more difficult and time consuming to break the window. This slowed them down, but did not stop the next attempt – it just took them longer to get inside.
Finally, we installed roll-down mesh screens. Since then, we have not had a break-in. These are pulled down every evening and then rolled up again the next day before we open the office. They get stored in the ceiling, so it is not visible to our patients during office hours.
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Over the years, we have also been the victim of employee theft. In some cases, this type of theft is more difficult to uncover. It can sometimes be months or years before you notice a problem.
According to Chron.com, the Houston Chronicle website, there are several ways employees can attack your practice:
“First of all, employees can under-charge a customer or not ring up a sale and pocket the cash.
Secondly, workers can walk or drive off with your products. Since frames and contact lenses are relatively small items, it’s easy for their theft to go unnoticed.
Thirdly, an employee may divert money from a business account, which can be complicated and hard to detect.
Fourthly, ‘lapping’ is a form of embezzlement in which the employee pockets money when taking money from one account to pay off another.
Lastly, skimming money from sales or accounts in small amounts can go on for years,” according to Chron.
Chron.com offers these recommendations for preventing employee crime: “Start by doing everything you can to hire responsible, trustworthy people. Check every applicant’s references and do background checks, including criminal checks. Establish rules and procedures that reduce the opportunities for theft, and be sure that all employees follow them. Require regular audits for anyone who works with invoices, receipts and payroll. If everyone knows and follows the rules, there won’t be a cloud of suspicion in the workplace.”2
I would also recommend you do a regular inventory of products such as frames and contact lenses if you stock them. This will alert you to a problem before it turns into a real money drainer.
In our office, we had an employee who set up a scheme where she noted in our software system that a patient was getting a refund for returning an item. The problem was the refund was credited to her credit card account. We did not discover the scheme until a patient was told by another employee that she was credited for a return, which came as a surprise to the patient, who said she never requested a return. We began to investigate and discovered the scheme had been going on for at least six months to the tune of several thousand dollars. We were able to get most of our money back and the employee was fired. The employee’s reason for taking the money was she was planning a trip for her kids and herself to Disney World.
We have also been the victim of ID theft. This occurred several years ago when we were using a payroll service to help manage the 20+ employees we had on staff.
After several years of using the service, one of our employees received a phone bill that she had not set up, but was in her name and address. We realized it happened through our payroll service because the way she spelled her name was only used in processing payroll. Unfortunately, she was not the only employee affected. The scammer at the company also attacked five other employee accounts. We informed the payroll service, which found and fired the culprit. We ended our relationship with that payroll service, but it took months to clear the accounts of our employees who were involved.
“Use of the internet to conduct business and retain records makes you a target for cybercriminals from both inside and outside your company. In fact, cybercrime is the fastest growing crime today and 50 percent of cyberattacks target small businesses, according to Cybercrime Magazine. Theft and fraud are both possible. Hackers may steal your customer list or credit information. Viruses can infect your files, causing random, but expensive havoc,” according to Chron. 2
Several years ago, our patient management system was attacked. We opened our computers one morning to a message that demanded payment to unlock our system. Fortunately, our IT expert had a great back-up system and we were able to recover everything without having to pay the criminals.
I have known a few other colleagues who were not as lucky and it cost them thousands of dollars to get back into their systems.
Make sure you have some type of back-up system in place and work with your IT provider to keep it up to date. Also make sure to monitor employees who have access to company information, especially financial information, and conduct regular audits.
In conclusion, theft is not going to go away. If you are in business, you are going to be a target. Do all you can to have systems in place to prevent the headaches and loss that come with theft. Good luck and be aware.
1. Six Ways to Secure Your Business from Customer Theft, Score.org April 26, 2021
2. List of Three Crimes That Affect Businesses, By Chron.com Contributor Updated October 12, 2020