When a retailer sees someone suspicious wandering the aisles, they can't just call police.

Acting shady in a store isn't illegal. Neither is putting an item in your pocket.

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Under North Dakota law, an item must be taken past the last point of sale before it is considered stolen.

Jerry Cox, a regional manager for Valley Dairy in Grand Forks, said employees at their nine area convenience stores are trained to watch for shoplifters.

Often, he said, a shoplifter will pocket some items and purchase others. If an employee sees someone tuck something away between the aisles, they have to give the person every chance to pay. The clerk often will ask if there's anything else they want.

"You have to assume they're honest," Cox said.

But not everyone is.

Dealing with shoplifters almost is a daily experience for the Grand Forks Police Department. In 2016, the department responded to 351 calls for service on shoplifting offenses, according to Lt. Bill Macki of the uniform patrol bureau.

There have been 25 calls for shoplifting so far this year, Macki said. In January, there were 24 calls for service on shoplifting, much fewer than the 43 shoplifting calls the same month in 2016.

"It certainly appears to be down, but one month is not going to be enough to say if it's a downward trend or not," Macki sadi.

The National Association for Shoplifting Prevention says there are about 27 million shoplifters in America. The organization says, based on research with shoplifters, the thieves are caught an average of once every 48 times.

"I think it happens more than we catch," Cox said.

If someone has taken something and doesn't fess up, employees will ask them to step aside while police are called, Cox said. But the employees are not allowed to physically restrain the suspect.

He acknowledged that shoplifting is hard to stop, particularly if it's a situation with one employee in the store and multiple customers. If there are people who catch the store's attention on a surveillance camera, Cox said they'll pass out photos of the suspect to other shops.

Preventive steps

Police don't just respond after shoplifting happens. They work with local retailers to deter thieves in advance.

"We really focus on prevention," said Lt. Jeremy Moe with the Grand Forks Police Department's specialized resource bureau.

The city's four community outreach officers work with local businesses to prevent shoplifting and other crime with what is known as CPTED, crime prevention through environmental design. When officers conduct a CPTED, they do assessments of local businesses. For example, an officer might point out overly bunched sections of items with low visibility where thieves could work undetected to retailers, Moe said. Officers will point out problem layouts and give feedback on best practices.

Cox said Valley Dairy has had officers perform CPTED's at most of its convenience stores.

"We've had officers talk to us, especially about lighting and keeping windows clear," Cox said.

He said Grand Forks Police have a good handle of what's going on in the city and where thieves are likely to target. The police have developed a good rapport with his employees, Cox said, and might warn of known thieves in the area.

"The businesses obviously have a big role in protecting what's theirs, we can only make recommendations," Moe said.

There are 10,693 retail establishments in North Dakota that support 117,410 jobs, according to the National Retail Federation. The group says retail has a $6.4 billion impact on the state's total GDP.

In 2014, shoplifting, employee and supplier fraud cost American retailers $44 billion, according to an estimation from the National Retail Federation and the University of Florida. Most of that money comes from organized retail crime in which criminals will target mass amounts of valued goods to sell them on the black market, but shoplifting still makes a dent.

Bob Moraca, vice president of loss prevention at the National Retail Federation, said the average shoplifting haul is $310, far beyond a simple candy bar.

Moraca, who has 35 years experience in law enforcement and loss prevention, said the best things stores can do is have multiple employees and greet each customer as they come in, to send a message that they've been seen.

"They'll take the path of least resistance," Moraca said of thieves.