By PHILLIP LEE
In these times of economic downturn, people are becoming more desperate. One result appears to be that crime is on the increase — and one target may be the pawnbroking industry.
We’ve seen an uptick in the number of burglaries and robberies of pawnshops, especially in the last four or five months,” says Bryan Meyer, president of Gridiron Insurance Underwriters in Florida.
Meyer says that his company had few losses in 2007 and part of 2008, but that burglary and robbery claims have skyrocketed more recently.
“We’ve had quite a slew of them in the last six months,” Meyer says. “I would say in the first quarter you’ll see as many pawnshop losses as you did for an entire year, two or three years ago.”
Although he has no hard proof, Meyer believes that the hard economic times are behind the jump in crime. “That’s my gut feeling. I don’t have any statistics to back it up,” he admits.
He adds that his company insures other industries, and these have not been hit as hard as pawnbroking.
Waiting and Watching
But other insurers have yet to see an increase in crimes against pawnshops.
“We haven’t seen an uptick in the losses yet in the pawnbroker arena,” says Gary Wasserman, vice president of Wexler Insurance Agency in Florida.
“Where we have seen it is in the jewelry arena.”
“The economy right now is tough,” says Laura Sullins, operations manager of Union Life and Casualty in Arizona. While she believes that robberies and crime are likely to climb, it isn’t occurring yet. “We haven’t seen an increase, but I would say you need to be aware. I would say that it’s going to happen.”
Sullins believes that pawnbrokers’ tough reputation is working to their advantage. There’s a perception that pawnshops are better secured, and that pawnbrokers are more likely to be armed.
“A lot of the pawnshops have gotten away from this, but a lot of times they do look intimidating, not like a jewelry store,” Sullins says.
“And you have cameras and some of pawnbrokers are armed. So when you have all of that combined, that definitely is going to be a deterrent. The robber is going to think, ‘Well, maybe I’ll go hit the jewelry store down the street.'”
Wasserman agrees, adding that robbers don’t want to get into a gun battle.
Still, both Wasserman and Sullins believe that pawn robberies and burglaries are likely to increase. The industry needs to prepare and be alert.
Wasserman says that the key to preventing robberies is to follow security procedures. Allowing a single individual to open or close the store remains the surest recipe for disaster, he says. An additional person or two should watch the individual opening from a secure distance to make sure it goes safely, and to make sure no one is casing the store.
Wasserman stresses that you have to have “processes, procedures and common sense.” Employees must be well-trained, given proper advice on things to look out for, how to react in questionable situations and what steps to follow, he says.
Sullins says that pawnshop owners need to hold meetings with their employees to make sure they are alert and aware, even if they have never experienced a loss.
“It doesn’t mean that they are exempt (if you’ve never been robbed),” Sullins says. “You can have all the security in the world but if they want to get you, they’re going to get you. You just have to be smart. We’re in tough times right now. You need to use common sense.”
It only takes a momentary lapse for a sticky-fingered felon to take advantage and get away with merchandise.
Meyer says that Gridiron agents are telling him that pawnbrokers who are hit are upset with themselves because they put their guard down for few minutes.
“They have to be more vigilant.” Meyer says. “If they’ve never seen the person before, they should be suspicious up front and think, ‘This guy’s going to rob me.’ Unfortunately, it’s the sad state of affairs.”
“Have employees get into the habit of always shutting the showcase when they take out a piece of jewelry,” Sullins urges. If you turn away even for a second, thieves will quickly grab the merchandise.
“Some of these people are experts, and they’re just looking for some vulnerability,” she points out.
Pawnbrokers also need to make use of upgraded technologies, such as cameras with digital recording. The better image you can get of a perpetrator, the more likely it is that the person will be caught and gotten off the street.
Meyer suggests that the camera be in plain sight, and that pawnbrokers consider posting signs outside the shop, announcing the cameras’ presence. That may make robbers think twice, he says. But he urges setting up hidden cameras as well.
Other technological weapons to consider include a fogger. When a button is pressed, smoke clouds the entire shop. The idea is that the criminal can’t see anything and thus can’t steal anything, and will flee the store empty-handed.
Sullins suggests using a buzzer system to control entry, but understands why pawnshop owners dislike them.
“A lot of shops don’t want to do that because they don’t want the intimidation factor,” she admits, “but there are some stores that have had to do that when they’re in some of the rougher areas.”
Panic Button Placement
One thing that people may need to re-think is the placement of panic buttons. Sullins says that pawnshop owners need to consider the possibility of being robbed and locked in somewhere in their store.
She cites an armed robbery that occurred a few years ago where the thieves tied up the staff and put them in a bathroom. The owner installed a panic button in the bathroom after the incident.
“You want to be creative,” she says. Ask yourself where criminals would most likely secure you, then put a panic button in that area.
But even with massive security and careful precautions, crime can strike anyone. If you’re a victim, it is better to simply let them take the money or merchandise than to take a chance with your life.
A lot of pawnbrokers take being robbed very personally, Sullins says. “This is their stuff, even if they have insurance. They’re mad.” But she urges pawnbrokers to get away from that atttitude.
Sullins tells of an armed robbery several years ago where the criminals were leaving the store with their takings when the owner was able to get to his gun. He fired, and the thieves turned right back around, shot him square in the eyes and killed him.
“It just wasn’t worth it.” Sullins says. “Just let them take what they want to get. That’s why you buy good coverage. And you can sleep well at night.
“Your life is more important. Your employees’ lives are more important.”