Heavier police presence at Toronto LCBOs after Star exposes spike in brazen thefts

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The customer, who we will call Andy, shared the experience with the Star on condition his name not be published to protect his family from possible reprisal. He credited skills acquired during a 20-year military career with his decision to follow the suspects.

“I was in the store about to pay for my wine when I heard a commotion behind me and turned to see two guys with faces covered by some sort of black fabric, filling up a massive shopping bag. As I turned back to pay, I thought, ‘What the hell did I just see?’ ”

He made a military-style decision. “I kind of do this thing where I gather up the information, analyze what is going on and kind of do a risk/reward thing to decide to do something and then act. It’s really just instinct.”

He thought their facial coverings would hamper their vision, an experience he’d had wearing a similar mask one Halloween. He could see the loot bag was so heavy the men were struggling to walk. Tracking them from a distance down a narrow, unlit alley, he turned a corner and suddenly found himself wide open, and only a few steps from the suspects as they lifted the bag into the trunk of their car.

“I made a note of the plate and I walked past them as calmly as I could — this was where my heart was beating pretty good — I was only ever scared when I turned the corner and realized I was so close to those guys. It was like, ‘Oh, crap.’ ”

Andy walked until he was clear of the suspects and then ran back to the LCBO “as fast as I could,” where the store manager was on the phone with police and conveyed the plate number.

He picked up the wine he’d already paid for and, moments later, as he got into his car and began driving away, the police takedown took place.

“It’s pretty amazing how fast everything clicked together. The police were great. They were in the right spot, in the right place,” said Andy, who works for the city of Toronto.

The close proximity of police on Wilson Ave. on the evening of Jan. 16 was not mere happenstance, according to Det. Matthew Routh of 32 Division, but part of a more deliberate plan to act against LCBO theft.

Police identified the Wilson store suspects as Dennis James, 25, and Nathaniel Snowden, 31, both of Toronto, and allege the duo is responsible not only for that night’s heist but also for a flurry of thefts from other Toronto LCBOs over the past three months that netted upwards of $90,000 worth of liquor. The pair face 260 charges involving 40 separate incidents.

The vast majority of that loot is long gone, Routh told the Star. None of the alcohol was recovered, save for the $3,800 worth the men had on them when they were arrested.

“Our belief, based on what we observed, is that we think they’re selling the alcohol immediately to some less-reputable bars,” he said.

That belief — that Torontonians may be unwittingly drinking the looted liquor in bars and restaurants — is sobering. And, thus far, unproven in court.

The Ontario Alcohol and Gaming Commission, which inspects licensed premises for potential Liquor Act violations, said in an email to the Star that their “inspections have revealed stolen or illegitimate liquor is not a significant issue.”

Yet police forces across Ontario also have authority to conduct liquor inspections. And as the various Toronto police divisions dive deeper into the LCBO theft epidemic, they say the evidence is mounting.

In 55 Division, Supt. Reuben Stroble points to a recent arrest at an east-end LCBO that enabled police to identify “a network to which some of this property was sold to local bars and business establishments at a discounted rate.”

The arrest marked a significant breakthrough. It was achieved because of a pilot project at 55 Division, which spans from the Don River to Victoria Park Ave. and south from Danforth Ave. to Lake Ontario, where officers have been given cellphones so community members can call them directly, as well as 911. In this case, it was an LCBO worker who called the police cell when a person known to steal entered the store.

At 14 Division, officers have racked up impressive arrest numbers, focusing on LCBO thefts after a rash of public complaints in November. As of Thursday, police have made 171 arrests — 68 of them through direct patrols and stakeouts and 103 by careful police sifting of a stream of online reports and surveillance photos of theft suspects provided by local LCBOs.

As detailed in four earlier stories in this series, LCBO outlets in Toronto have been targeted by thieves more than 9,000 times since 2014, according to police data obtained by the Star. And the pace of those thefts has increased year over year, accelerating threefold and making the LCBO far and away the most targeted retailer in the city.

When you put faces to those numbers, the deeper human tragedies are obvious. Court documents and anecdotal stories from more than 30 front-line LCBO workers who approached the Star since the series began describe an onslaught of increasingly audacious and at times menacing theft, much of it driven by addiction and mental health issues.

“Many of these cases are incredibly sad,” said Staff Sgt. Tam Bui of 14 Division. “Some of them, right away you understand it’s more a health issue than a law enforcement issue.

“But then we see the groups stealing in high-volume, again and again, for thousands of dollars each time, until you’re talking in the range of $250,000 worth of liquor. That’s a whole different story. That’s our main focus.”

Though no new citywide data is available since the crackdown, officials with 14 Division say the combined heft of the LCBO’s paid-duty police, together with the success of the division’s patrols, have driven the number of thefts down. Though uniformed paid-duty officers rarely make arrests, their presence is proving an effective deterrence. And the regular-duty results of Bui and his team are readily apparent.

Other sources, meanwhile, have provided the Star with a sense of the vast range of characters in the orbit of LCBO theft.

One photo given to the Star shows an elderly gentleman who looks and sounds almost sprung from the pages of a Charles Bukowski novel. His role in the stolen liquor equation is to circulate through Toronto’s underground poker scene, selling bottles out of a duffel bag at two-thirds face value.

Other known players include the “Rickety Crickets Gang,” named by LCBO front-line workers. They are known to have plagued a number of east-end LCBOs for much of 2018 and along the way, earned a reputation for “stumbling, bumbling, almost hapless theft.”

In the absence of security and with LCBO staffers under orders to not interfere when thefts are in progress, the Rickety Crickets made their slow-motion escape with the loot each time — despite the fact that one of them is living his life of crime upon a mobility scooter.

Said one LCBO source who saw the Rickety Crickets in action: “It got so frustrating and at the same time hilarious that during the last few robberies, staff would mock them as the theft took place, playing ‘Yakety Sax’ (the theme to Benny Hill) on their phones while these guys grabbed the goods.”

Police may have allayed some of that frustration with the recent arrests, but some officers are skeptical about what will happen when the suspects reach court.

“Certainly my experience is recidivism is very high in this kind of criminal activity because there doesn’t seem to be a penalty,” said 32 Division’s Routh. The two men arrested by his officers in January were both on probation and one was out on bail, awaiting trial on a previous charge.

These are “significant criminals,” he said. “You and I as taxpayers, we’re out $92,000 in alcohol that we know of. It’s our tax funds that are being abused.”

But a judge at Old City Hall recently sentenced a man arrested by 14 Division officers for stealing $1,100 from an LCBO on Bloor St. W. to 20 days in jail, calling the theft a “high-end deliberate act.” The man, who was on probation for other offences, entered the store with a luggage bag and filled it with bottles of Jack Daniels, JP Wiser and Canadian Club, before wheeling it out of the store.

Routh is more positive about the outcome of his division’s recent arrest of the two men caught on Wilson charged with stealing dozens of times from LCBOs.

A dedicated crown has been assigned to the case — which isn’t typical — as part of a new program instituted by the province in August.

It’s “fantastic,” said Routh. “Now we know we have a single voice at the crown’s office that we can work with and that has a vested interest in the case.”

But skeptics, including some LCBO front-liners, wonder whether the paid-duty police blitz is a one-off, or merely the first stage of a deeper, more strategic overhaul that will lead to safer stores not only in Toronto but across the province.

“I am wondering whether this is indicative of a co-ordinated long-term effort or more of a public relations thing,” said Jane Archibald, a Toronto resident who has campaigned tenaciously since last fall, calling on the LCBO, police and the municipal and provincial governments to take action on liquor theft.

“Hopefully the LCBO are implementing a province-wide solution.”

LCBO officials did not respond Friday to questions from the Star on the new measures. But in a series of remarks to staff — including a video message last week and an email two days ago — President and CEO George Soleas sought to reassure workers that the LCBO will “always look to incorporate new methods and technologies, including the continuous upgrade of CCTV equipment in all our 665 locations.

“We will be implementing other technical safeguards in our stores, as well as increased security in some locations. We appreciate everything you do to prevent and report theft, and how you care for the safety of our customers and each other,” Soleas wrote.

Andy the Good Samaritan, for his part, wouldn’t hesitate to act again should he find himself in a similar situation.

He did, however, end the interview emphasizing his concern about anonymity.

“Nobody knows what connections these suspects have or what kind of irritation this has caused their buyers or their bosses,” he said. “I don’t want to risk them coming after me or my family in an act of revenge.”

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Halton police investigating 2 reported ATM thefts in Oakville – Hamilton

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Halton police are investigating two ATM thefts in Oakville.


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Police say in the early morning hours of Friday, Jan. 18, three suspects in an older model pickup truck pulled up to the front doors of the Sobeys on Lakeshore Road West and pried open the sliding door.

A chain connected to the truck was tied around the ATM machine, and the driver then accelerated, hauling the ATM through the doors of the store, before it was loaded onto the vehicle.

Police say the second incident, involving three suspects and a pickup truck, happened early Thursday morning at the ‘Film.Ca Cinemas’ movie theatre on Speers Road, where the same technique was used to remove the ATM.


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However, the suspects were caught on surveillance video.

To view their descriptions and suspect vehicle, please click here.

Anyone with information about these ATM thefts is asked to contact Det.-Const. Ross Amore at the 2 District Criminal Investigations Bureau at 905-825-4747 ext. 2246.

© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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LCBO thefts have spiralled and now make up nearly half of all shoplifting from Toronto’s most-hit retailers

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The looting of Toronto’s vulnerable LCBO outlets has spiralled to epidemic proportions — undergoing more than a threefold increase over the past five years — and the latest figures show it accounts for nearly half of all shoplifting incidents at the most frequently hit retail outlets in the city.

The issue of brazen, broad-daylight liquor theft, quantified for the first time two weeks ago in a Toronto Star investigation showing the city’s LCBO shops have been targeted more than 9,000 times since 2014, was sobering enough.

An LCBO outlet at 3111 Danforth Ave. has been particulaly hard-hit, staff say. The store had 316 incidents of shoplifting reported to Toronto police from 2014 to June 26, 2018, ranking it the eighth-highest LCBO location in the city for thefts.
An LCBO outlet at 3111 Danforth Ave. has been particulaly hard-hit, staff say. The store had 316 incidents of shoplifting reported to Toronto police from 2014 to June 26, 2018, ranking it the eighth-highest LCBO location in the city for thefts.  (Toronto Star Staff)

But a deeper dive into raw shoplifting data obtained from the Toronto Police Service, isolating the year-over-year increases — together with corroborating accounts from more than 20 LCBO whistleblowers who have approached the Star since the first story was published — now provides a far more detailed understanding of the scope and acceleration of the problem.

Among the revelations:

  • In 2014, police data shows, LCBO outlets accounted for just over a tenth of the shoplifting incidents at the top 100 most frequently targeted addresses of shoplifting incidents in Toronto. By 2017, it was a third. And halfway through 2018, the most recent data in the Star’s possession shows LCBOs accounted for nearly half of shoplifting incidents, with liquor heists happening more than three times as often as they did in 2014.
  • The summer of 2018, where the police data ends, saw a rash of a new and ever more brazen heists at several Toronto LCBOs, involving groups of thieves bypassing the display shelves altogether and instead plundering employee-only warehouse areas, where they helped themselves to entire sealed cases of premium liquors. The repeated raids on LCBO backrooms came as a shock to many anxiety-ridden frontline workers, five of whom told the Star they now fear what they may encounter as they go about what once was the simple, safe task of restocking shelves.
  • As those heists unfolded, in July 2018, an outraged downtown Toronto school principal sounded alarms with LCBO management and the newly elected Ford government, relaying information that children as young as 13 were stealing liquor “with impunity” and calling for an increase in store security. Mark Lasso, principal of Church Street Junior Public School, told the Star he received no response from Finance Minister Vic Fedeli, whose writ includes the LCBO.

The initial response from LCBO management to Lasso came via email from spokesperson Ryan McCann, who said, “Theft, and in this case, underage theft, is extremely concerning, especially since we make every effort to ensure alcohol stays out of the hands of minors.” But despite a follow-up discussion with a senior Toronto-area retail manager, Lasso told the Star he has seen no evidence of enhanced security at the LCBO locations that concern him most.

“It’s disappointing, sad and greatly concerning that this is continuing when measures could be put into place to prevent it,” said Lasso. “The cost of extra security seems to be the only hurdle — a cost that the LCBO could easily afford. As a public trust, I believe they can and need to do better. I think our kids are worth the cost.”

  • Though the police data obtained by the Star speaks strictly to theft at LCBOs in Toronto, a score of frontline LCBO workers from cities throughout Ontario contacted us in response to the initial investigation to say that theft often goes unreported when stores are busy, despite LCBO rules requiring staff to report every incident, both internally and to local police. “It’s both frightening and depressing,” said one. “But in the absence of security and with long lineups at the till, you have to tend to customers before you can get to the paperwork. And sometimes it just doesn’t get done.”

(The Star analyzed data supplied by the Toronto police through a freedom-of-information request for the 100 addresses with the most shoplifting occurrences from 2014 to 2018 by year. An initial request for the top 500 per year was denied because the police service said it couldn’t weed out private residences from an address list that long.)

Read more:

LCBO thefts surge in Toronto

Readers share accounts: ‘Discouraging. Dumbfounded.’

Leaked memo says LCBO ramping up anti-theft efforts

While LCBO management, in its initial response to the Star, acknowledged a general rise in shop theft at liquor stores in urban areas of Ontario, it did not address questions relating to the high-volume thefts described in the story. The Star went back to the LCBO for this follow-up, but the company said it had no comment.

Other frontline LCBO workers describe a morale-crushing reality in which many dread reporting for work. Several told of being threatened with thieves brandishing syringes as they filled loot bags. Another described a thief who “threw human feces” during a heist.

One broad theme among LCBO workers in contact with the Star: fear that the crisis is escalating toward the likelihood that someone, whether staff or even a customer, will pay a fatal price in the absence of more robust security or police response.

“I have been witness to multiple incidents where brave, if foolhardy, customers have chased thieves out of the store and come back to us with large bags full of product,” one frontliner said.

“By policy, and not exactly unjustly, we have our hands tied. And some of us aren’t necessarily into the idea of playing vigilante. Yet we feel the heat from customers for our perceived apathy and inaction.

“We are grateful for public support. I don’t think I need remind anybody that when a shoplifter walks out with something like $800 worth of 12-year-old Glenfiddich stuffed into a bag slung over his back like some miscreant Santa Claus, that is taxpayer money walking out the door with him. If the police won’t respond to these incidents and with the LCBO so seldom wont to prevent them, a store-level employee can’t do a lot.”

Indeed, a “no touch/no chase” policy on shoplifters is the prevailing norm not just at the LCBO but throughout modern-day retail — and few can reasonably expect otherwise from regular shop-floor workers, who never signed up as security. Without exception, every LCBO worker in contact with the Star points to more and better security as the primary solution.

Many frontline LCBO workers from cities throughout Ontario say LCBO theft often goes unreported when stores are busy.
Many frontline LCBO workers from cities throughout Ontario say LCBO theft often goes unreported when stores are busy.  (Toronto Star Staff)

The problem in Toronto also coincides with a police directive early in 2018 that informed LCBO management police would no longer respond in person to liquor theft unless the perpetrators were still inside the store. The theft data the Star is revealing today indicates LCBO theft in the city was at an all-time high as that decision was made.

Police officials in the city have emphasized the need to prioritize violent crime. And, as detailed in the Star’s Dec. 29 investigation, the service is rebounding with a new pilot program at 14 Division dedicated to solving LCBO theft. Though still in its early days, the team at 14 Division landed a major bust just before Christmas, arresting two individuals allegedly involved in a liquor theft ring of as many as 12 people.

Yet within LCBO circles, in the wake of the Star’s first report, insiders have sent distressing signals suggesting LCBO management are currently preoccupied with locating the author of an anonymous plea for help mailed to the Star, which triggered our initial investigation.

“Please keep me anonymous as they already have started a witch hunt in our district looking for your first source,” wrote one Toronto-area frontline worker. “This story is so deep and again thanks for your reporting. We are all stressed and anxious every damn shift.”

All current LCBO workers providing information to the Star are running the risk of instant dismissal. But the gag does not extend to former LCBO employees, some of whom have reached out to say on the record what active staff cannot.

“One thing I want to say is I really want to commend the person who sent that letter because whoever it was, they had a lot of courage,” said Karen Pound, who retired three years ago after a 35-year career with the LCBO, first as a cashier and later as an assistant manager.

“He or she put their job in jeopardy. Because that’s how bad it is. Everybody is afraid.”

Pound, who worked at several Hamilton-area LCBOs, said that “theft was brutal” as much as a decade ago — but largely confined to “small-time thefts” of one or two bottles. But the modern-day reality is that such minor theft is increasingly interspersed with brazen, big-bag heists that can involve duffel bags filled with premium liquors.

“The problem is all stores are kind of set up the same,” said Pound. “So when you come through that turnstile, you have all that high-end stuff all on one wall — easy access. The people come in, they know when there’s a shift change, they know peak times and when not to come in. They watch, they scan. And if there’s nobody on the floor, they know exactly when to come in. They have that whole wall that they can scoop and go.”

And the way stores are laid out, she said, leaves cashiers, and customer service staff, with their backs to the door.

“As an assistant manager, I would be in the office,” where there is one-way glass, said Pound. “So I could see everything.” She said she witnessed many people stealing even when her colleagues could not. “I could see the cashier couldn’t see it, because they had their back to it.”

Stores often have a single security guard, who Pound said is “just a deterrence.” If a store has enough reported incidents of theft, as well as video evidence, the LCBO will send in plainclothes security guards to catch thieves, according to another longtime LCBO employee.

Much of the LCBO’s guard work falls to an outside company — G4S Canada — which commands one of the country’s largest security services. But frontline LCBO workers, many of whom are employed as casual part-timers, tell the Star the security help routinely shifts from store to store, “almost like putting fingers in a dike that has too many holes and too few fingers,” in the words of one LCBO source.

A few months ago, an LCBO employee witnessed seven people filling shopping carts full of liquor and bolting out the door in single file. Staff who went outside to record licence plate information were verbally reprimanded, according to an email sent by the employee.

Workers who try to stop thefts at the stores can be subject to suspensions, said another veteran. “The employees care too much. People who try and stop it get disciplined,” he said. Videos of the thefts are used to punish the employees who interfere. “The wrong people are getting punished,” said the employee.

“We shouldn’t go too easy on the police — they have a role in this,” another frontline Toronto-area LCBO told the Star. “But it’s important to understand that the theft is becoming more sophisticated.

“In one recent theft, the cashier could see that a kind of bait-and-switch operation was underway. The G4 security went for the bait — going after the one guy — and as soon as they did, three big thieves hit us hard. They went for the bait and they missed the freaking muskellunge.”

Mitch Potter is a reporter and feature writer based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @MPwrites

Patty Winsa is a Toronto-based data reporter. Reach her via email: pwinsa@thestar.ca

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‘Discouraging. Dumbfounded. A sad reality.’ Star story on LCBO thefts prompts readers to share their eyewitness accounts

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Shared outrage. Shared anger. Shared frustration. And maybe, just maybe, a few good ideas on how to stop, or at least slow, the spiralling problem of theft at the LCBO.

That’s the thrust of reaction to the Star’s revelation Saturday that LCBO outlets in Toronto have sustained a surge of theft, hit more 9,000 times since 2014 — often in high-volume heists in which teams of thieves fill backpacks, duffel bags and suitcases with premium liquors and then simply walk away.

The Star’s call for eyewitness accounts, a number of which we are publishing below, included input from a surprising range of people on both sides of the till: customers who’ve seen it happen, all over the city and well beyond; and long-suffering LCBO workers, past and present, who confirm the morale-crushing reality of feeling helpless and insecure as they try to do their jobs.

One female LCBO worker reached out from rural Ontario, asking that we not publish her name nor that of her town, citing fear of retribution. “I work in a very little store and I can tell you the theft is worse here. I am a young single mom and often work alone, which is very scary. I have unfortunately served drunk males because they are too aggressive and I’m afraid of what may happen if I deny them.

“We’ve asked for more and better security cameras because the ones we have don’t cover the store. We were denied. I’d love to see the LCBO ‘suits’ make more of an effort to show that employee safety is taken seriously.”

The Star’s crunching of Toronto Police Service theft data produced sobering numbers: more than 9,000 thefts at LCBO outlets in the past four-and-a-half years (Jan. 1, 2014 to June 26, 2018). That makes the Liquor Control Board of Ontario far and away the most targeted retail entity in the city. And though retailers as a whole have reported a major spike in shoplifting incidents in the city — 11,010 thefts in 2014 versus 16,667 in the first 10 months of 2018 — the spike in liquor theft appears to be the single biggest driver.

Read more:

LCBO thefts surge in Toronto, often as staff stand and watch. ‘They’re literally just walking away’

The LCBO declined a request for an interview on the Star’s findings. Instead, the provincially owned liquor retailer responded in writing to a summary of the troubling data, acknowledging, “We can confirm that the LCBO is seeing an increase in shop theft, with the majority taking place in urban areas.”

As the Star reported Saturday, no single explanation unpacks the whole of the LCBO problem, which, in Toronto, some observers say, is made worse by new police policy to not respond to the scene of liquor theft unless the suspects are still in the building. And nowhere in the wide range of responses is there any hint that front line LCBO staff are at fault. The broad consensus is they deserve protection, not blame.

One signal we are able to read from the responses — the public has a voice in this and when it is sounded loudly enough, action follows. Though there is not yet any citywide police effort to staunch liquor theft, a new pilot program underway involving 14 Division’s Community Response Unit only exists because the public — LCBO customers who witnessed theft — asked for it.

Likewise, east Toronto resident Jane Archibald, a self-described “angry citizen and taxpayer” after witnessing thieves fill “large pieces of luggage” with liquor and flee the LCBO near Carlaw Ave. and Gerrard St. in November, shared with the Star on Saturday her correspondence with Councillor Paula Fletcher, the LCBO, Mayor John Tory, Premier Doug Ford and the Toronto Police Priority Response Command.

“The LCBO responded the following day (adding) security guards. I was told they were working to staff up on security. Thefts have decreased in the Gerrard location as a result,” said Archibald, who intends to continue agitating. “This is a policing issue which leaves retail employees ridiculously vulnerable.”

Here follows a cross-section of responses to the Star’s request for eyewitness accounts of theft at the LCBO. Some anecdotes involve customers taking it upon themselves to engage in levels of risk that ignore police advice. We can only add our voice to those calling for maximum restraint when shopping for liquor:

“About two years ago I was at the LCBO on Davenport near Dupont and I saw a guy loading up his backpack with vodka from a display near the entrance. We all stood and watched as he strapped the bag to his back and walked out the door. I asked the (cashier) if he’d ever seen anything like it. “It happens,” I recall him saying.

— Mary Kirley

“I was at the LCBO at Warden and Eglinton in the summer. This guy cruises through the checkout with a 60-ounce vodka in each hand, pretending to be talking on the phone. One cashier said, ‘Sir, did you pay for those?’ He ignored her. Myself and a gentleman in front of me offered to go get them off the guy but they told us not to. Then they proceeded to write the incident down in a book and continued on like nothing had happened. The customers were dumbfounded as to the level of apathy and the lack of any attempt to stop the person. When I left the guy was strolling down Eglinton without a care in the world. Pretty sad when the civilized, law-abiding customers are seemingly the only ones who care about theft, and stopping it.”

— Graham Kritzer

“At the LCBO in the Junction, I saw two men with backpacks fill them up with liquor and walk out the door as the staff stood by and did nothing. I asked and they said they were not allowed to pursue anyone caught stealing! This makes sense for personal safety reasons but it’s clearly a huge problem.”

— Sue St. Denis

“I saw it at the LCBO at Oakwood and St. Clair. A guy in a hoodie, filling his jacket with liquor bottles. I advised the unaware employees and the staff told the guy to give back the bottles and leave, which he did. I’m sure this result is rare. If we’re going to continue this ‘unique’ monopoly system in this province, I think going back to the pre-’80s order-desk format would be the best way to stop this. Rather than paper, digital screens or your phone would presumably be the selection tool. Encouraging more online purchases and in-store pickup and discouraging/minimizing their fancy merchandising is another thought. After all, the purpose of the latter surely isn’t to stay ahead of the competition when there isn’t any.”

— Jason Dear

“I guess that because the cost of the liquor is so low relative to the retail price, which includes a large amount of tax, that the actual losses are minimal. If the perpetrators were arrested and convicted these costs would far outweigh the losses, so it looks like the present solution is working and costing the public less to allow them to continue to shoplift. Also, the police cannot be involved in such small amounts with no violence.”

— David Franklin

“Considering the costs of thefts, why not hire off-duty undercover police with tasers, at least at the most often-hit stores? Or maybe have a security guard make customers check their bags at the front desk? We need to muscle up to this problem, soon and quickly. The response so far seems to be pure apathy at taxpayers’ expense. Where’s bold leadership on this problem?”

— C.L. Cateshaw

“Here in Mexico where I spend my winters, many businesses post guards with assault rifles, machine pistols or combat shotguns at the door. They don’t get many visits from smash-and-grab punks.”

— Tom Philip

“Four young people walked into the (Beaches LCBO) store with bandanas over their faces, loaded up backpacks and reusable shopping bags with anywhere from 6-15 bottles of wine and liquor and just walked out. They were inside for maybe 30 seconds. Nobody did anything. When I blocked the exit with my arm to try and block one of them, an employee told me not to so I dropped my arm and let the person go. This was a couple of years ago around this time of year, but it was very organized and completely bizarre.”

— James Di Fiore

“I live in Saskatoon, where the government-run liquor stores (have) high-security guards to prevent theft. And they catch shoplifters. I’ve seen people tackled to the ground.”

— Ellen Armstrong

“Interesting article about LCBO thefts in Toronto, but having worked for The Beer Store for over 10 years I feel compelled to mention that this happens every day at The Beer Store as well. The amount of stock that goes out the front door is staggering. And usually in brazen fashion as most times the perpetrators know there is nothing we can or will do about it. The unfortunate thing is we too are threatened on a daily basis.”

— Name withheld

“I worked for the LCBO for over 38 years. I’ve seen shoplifting. The staff were told do not interact with shoplifters — just watch them and report. Management would tell employees to try to kill the shoplifters with kindness. A lot of time, employees would just turn and walk away, knowing that nothing is going to come of the incident. It is discouraging for staff. I hope more employees tell their story so that the LCBO will act.”

— Kenny McGillvary

“A couple of summers ago at the LCBO at Bayview and Millwood, I watched some guy fill a duffel bag with booze and elbow past me as I opened the door. …Exactly a week later I get out of my car near the same spot and the same guy lumbers past with another full bag. He’s got to be going somewhere — so I get back in the car and trail him from a distance to a side street where a car is waiting. I pull behind and make like I’m checking out house numbers or something. Meanwhile, I’m taking the plate number and later give that to staff. I’ve always wondered if anything concrete came of that. I have to think the police did, in the end, do something. The point is the thieves are always heading somewhere with 50 pounds of bottles over their shoulder. So where? I asked the question and carried it through. Although police may have a different opinion on whether that was the wisest choice.”

— Christopher Childs

“Summer of 2017, I witnessed a robbery just like this at Coxwell and Queen: perp had a basket loaded with large bottles of premium liquor. Walked past the cash and right out the front door. We all saw it, customers and staff. I pulled out my phone and filmed it. Ran out and followed him across Queen toward the rear parking lot of Harvey’s. He calmly unloaded the bottles into his SUV and sped off. I called the police and reported it. From reading this article, I know he got away and nothing was done about it. I’m shocked to hear the LCBO is the biggest retail target for theft and so little is done to stop it, since taxpayers eat the cost … I’m also astounded that police won’t respond unless the thief is still on the property; since these are basically smash-and-grabs, law enforcement has a negligible impact in deterring these crimes. What now? LCBO stores are just sitting ducks? As a Toronto resident and taxpayer, I’d like to hear what (Toronto police Chief) Mark Saunders and (Premier) Doug Ford have to say.

— Pamela Capraru

“I work at LCBO. I’ve witnessed three thefts in the last month. It’s sad but a reality that we can’t do anything about it. I say this because the thieves return because there is no threat to combat their actions. Yes, we see them on CCTV but we can’t stop them from leaving or even touch them. They could sue us back since they have rights preventing these actions. What can we really do, any suggestions? Bottle locks can be removed by screwdriver. The truth is theft will continue and the taxpayer will pay for it. We become witnesses to the perfect crime. How ironic.

— Gloria Hunter

Mitch Potter is a reporter and feature writer based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @MPwrites

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LCBO thefts surge in Toronto, often as staff stand and watch. ‘They’re literally just walking away’

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Two menacing thieves, four oversized backpacks — and zero worries, evidently, that this will end badly for them. This is what liquor theft in Toronto looks like today.

On a recent Saturday afternoon at a busy east-end LCBO, a brazen, broad-daylight heist begins. Two twentysomething men, faces shrouded beneath hoodies, hats and sunglasses, push their way through a crowd of customers to an aisle of premium vodka and proceed to strip the shelves bare.

The LCBO has confirmed “an increase in shop theft, with the majority taking place in urban areas.”
The LCBO has confirmed “an increase in shop theft, with the majority taking place in urban areas.”  (Keith Beaty / Toronto Star)

Clink, clink, clink go the bottles as the loot bags swell. And then, smash — a $75 bottle of Grey Goose slips sideways and shatters upon the floor in their frenzy to get the job done. One of the bandits shouts a warning, “Stay the f- away from us.” The pilfering continues.

The customers — some 40 eyewitnesses, including a Toronto Star reporter — are frozen in place, stunned by the close-up glimpse of high-volume larceny.

The staff — three on the checkouts, two more elsewhere in the store — are the only ones not watching. They’ve seen it before. Over and over. Now they avert their morale-battered eyes.

Tension rises as the thieves stumble toward the exit, each burdened by something close to their body weight in the people’s booze. So heavy is the bounty that as they pass within arm’s reach, even a slight nudge might send them tumbling, putting a stop to it. But then what? Already, the floor is littered with broken glass. Every single item in this store is a potential weapon for someone who wants badly enough not to get caught.

Nobody makes a move.

It all lasts barely three minutes. Outside, a stunned group of volunteer fundraisers with the nearby Crescent Town Swimming Club witnesses the final scene, as the bandits make their slow-motion escape west along the Danforth, toward Victoria Park Ave.

“They aren’t even running,” says one of the swim volunteers. “They’re literally just walking away.” The loot — at least $2,000 worth of premium liquor in this one instance — came straight out of your pocket, Ontario.


Inside the store, as the tension eases and business resumes, a clerk winces when asked whether he’d ever seen anything like it. “Every single day,” he fires back in frustration. “Sometimes twice a day.”

Is it really as frequent as that? The Star went looking for answers, and in a word, yes.

The sobering numbers look like this: more than 9,000 thefts at LCBO outlets in Toronto in the past four-and-a-half years (Jan. 1, 2014 to June 26, 2018), according to a crunching of Toronto Police Service data obtained by the Star.

That makes the Liquor Control Board of Ontario far and away the most targeted retail entity in the city. And though retailers as a whole have reported a major spike in shoplifting incidents in the city — 11,010 thefts in 2014, versus 16,667 in the first 10 months of 2018 — the spike in liquor theft appears to be the single biggest driver.

The LCBO declined a request for an interview on the Star’s findings. Instead, the provincially owned liquor retailer responded in writing to a summary of the troubling data, acknowledging, “We can confirm that the LCBO is seeing an increase in shop theft, with the majority taking place in urban areas.”

In response to Star questions, the LCBO said: "As is industry standard, we never encourage our employees to physically engage with the perpetrator when an active shop theft is taking place."
In response to Star questions, the LCBO said: « As is industry standard, we never encourage our employees to physically engage with the perpetrator when an active shop theft is taking place. »  (Keith Beaty/Toronto Star File Photo)

No single explanation unpacks the whole of the LCBO’s theft problem. And it is far from a Toronto-only phenomenon. Twitter is littered and Facebook is festooned with both Crime Stopper-style alerts from police and customer eyewitness accounts that reference thefts throughout Ontario.

But LCBO theft stings especially deep in Toronto, where some suggest overlapping policies — the LCBO’s “hands-off” instruction to staff never to intervene with thieves while they are in the building, coupled with the Toronto Police Service’s policy to rarely, if ever, dispatch officers to a low-priority theft scene after the thieves have left — has opened a pathway to friction-free larceny.

“The LCBO doesn’t want their staff getting into tussles with thieves inside the store, and I understand that,” said Mike McCormack, president of the Toronto Police Association.

“But when you couple that with a policing decision that says we just don’t have the resources to respond unless the thief is on the scene, you lose a lot of the deterrent.

“That’s where we are right now and it’s rampant, like a butterfly effect of unintended consequences. I’m hearing from LCBO people directly that they’ve seen guys come in and fill up duffle bags and walk right out the door and when they call 911, if these guys are not on the scene nobody is going to respond.”

What do actual LCBO workers say? One clue arrived recently at the Star’s doorstep — a typewritten, snail-mailed, anonymous plea for help purporting to be from a frontline liquor store staffer.

“What the public doesn’t know is the amount of theft that goes on and how our lives are in jeopardy because of it. Every day we lose thousands of dollars to theft and we can’t do anything about it,” the letter said.

“We have been threatened with knives, needles, guns, physical harm, we’ve been shoved into fixtures, our lives threatened to where they will wait for us after shift, and yet the public doesn’t know as it’s kept quiet from the media.

A scan of an anonymous LCBO plea the Star received via Canada Post. It purports to be from an LCBO worker talking about thefts/risks on job.
A scan of an anonymous LCBO plea the Star received via Canada Post. It purports to be from an LCBO worker talking about thefts/risks on job.  (Toronto Star Photo Scan)

“We are all fearful that something will happen to one of us and it’s scary. THE LCBO DOESN’T CARE. They barely support us and we barely see security once a month if we are lucky enough to have them in our store for a full shift.”

The Star has no way to independently authenticate the letter, which ended with “name withheld due to fear of retaliation.” But upon hearing its message, OPSEU president Warren (Smokey) Thomas, who represents LCBO’s unionized staff, responded: “That really disturbs me — but that is the mood of the workers and it captures it very well.

“I think most of the managers do care — but they feel as hamstrung as the front-line workers feel. They are telling us that theft has increased substantially in the past year especially. Verbal abuse is common, and while violence itself is rare, the threat of violence is there.”

OPSEU followed up with additional comment, noting that meetings between the union and LCBO to address surging theft are occurring “at various levels.

“We continue to advocate for greater security measures and do see improved measures of which our staff have been able to suggest,” OPSEU wrote. “Unfortunately, it seems the act of shoplifting has turned into a larger-scale enterprise as thieves are stealing higher-end products and larger bottles.”

Likewise, in response to a list of questions from the Star, an LCBO spokesperson sent a statement citing a series of measures it has taken to curb theft while maintaining a safety-first posture.

“Safe stores and the safety of our employees are our top priorities and the policies and procedures we have in place reflect that. The LCBO has taken appropriate steps to prevent shop theft through security investments and theft protection tactics. We have increased our guarding and investigator expenditures, as well as CCTV technology, in-store deterrents, and always collaborate with local police on active investigations,” the statement said.

A series of handout photographs of LCBO-theft suspects released by Ontario police forces in 2018 in Ottawa, top left, Burlington, top right, and Halton, bottom left and right. Despite more than 9,000 LCBO thefts in the past four-and-a-half years, Toronto police have a policy to rarely, if ever, dispatch officers to a low-priority theft scene.
A series of handout photographs of LCBO-theft suspects released by Ontario police forces in 2018 in Ottawa, top left, Burlington, top right, and Halton, bottom left and right. Despite more than 9,000 LCBO thefts in the past four-and-a-half years, Toronto police have a policy to rarely, if ever, dispatch officers to a low-priority theft scene.  (Handout)

“As is industry standard, we never encourage our employees to physically engage with the perpetrator when an active shop theft is taking place. Instead, the LCBO ensures employees are given shop-theft procedures and critical training.”

Stephen O’Keefe, an Ontario-based retail loss consultant, said that the LCBO is not alone in experiencing a theft surge. Companies across the Canadian retail spectrum, he said, are reporting rising rates of “shrinkage.”

Yet with no new studies of the issue since 2014, Canadian retailers have relied upon U.S. data to get a handle on the increase. O’Keefe’s company, Bottom Line Matters, is in the process of launching new research to gain a more comprehensive understanding of what’s behind the spike.

One factor, he suspects, is that with Canadian retailers now in a race to allocate resources to digital commerce, many companies simply can’t afford to obsess on the bricks-and-mortar reality with the intensity they once did. “This, unfortunately, means that the risk appetite for shrinkage due to theft has grown, and loss-prevention resources have been strained,” he told the Star.

The spike in liquor theft, if especially acute in Toronto, has also triggered a rash of headlines recently in Manitoba, where officials cite the opioid crisis as a factor driving increasingly brazen, violent and frequent heists. One stopgap solution being tried in Winnipeg that has yet to take hold in Ontario is the outright removal of premium liquors from display shelves.

The $26,000 bottle that walked out the door in 2013.
The $26,000 bottle that walked out the door in 2013.  (LCBO)

Instead, expensive vodkas and the like are kept in a more secure space out of public view, and retrieved upon request to customers one bottle at a time, in a bid to strip the “lowest-hanging fruit” from temptation, a spokesperson for the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union told the Star.

In April 2018, Toronto police sent a letter to the security sections of the LCBO, said police spokesperson Meaghan Gray. The letter indicated that unless there is a public safety risk, certain crimes could now be reported online.

“Calls that require an immediate police presence would still be responded to,” Grey said. “The online reporting allows the security personnel at the LCBO to enter the information for investigation by TPS. This is one of many initiatives the Service is undertaking through its modernization process of ensuring we are where the public needs us the most.”

At least one Toronto police jurisdiction, meanwhile, is trying something else. The Community Response Unit at 14 Division, in response to a rash of public complaints, last month launched a multifaceted pilot project that includes circulating plainclothes officers at several LCBOs in the area.

“I can’t speak to all of Toronto, but in our patch we’re trying hard to find a new way to deal with the LCBO theft problem,” said Sgt. Nelson Barreira, who is leading the effort.

“I don’t want to give too much detail but we’re raising our presence. We’re averaging about one arrest a day involving LCBO theft. Basically we’re seeing two types of theft — on one hand you see brazen repeat offenders coming in pretty much daily and taking a single bottle and those cases usually involve addiction issues, either alcohol or drugs and sometimes mental health issues,” said Barreira.

“And then we see the big-bag approach — large quantities are being taken and resold at a discount. Our team is predominantly on bicycle but we mobilize a police car for this project to transport suspects. The approach is intelligence-led policing, acting on what the community shares with us as smartly as we can.”

Do you have any stories of LCBO shoplifiting to share? Write Mitch Potter mpotter@thestar.ca or share stories on Twitter with the hashtag #LCBOtheft

On Dec. 19, Barreira’s team led a bust of two people involved in an alleged 12-person shoplifting ring that targeted Toronto LCBOs. Police estimate the value of goods stolen by the group at over $200,000.

One point of agreement for the LCBO and everyone else: whatever else you might say about liquor theft, the cameras never lie. In the store on the Danforth the day the Star bore witness to a four-backpack heist, 13 ceiling-mounted cameras caught it all.

Sgt. Barreira of 14 Division emphasizes those high-quality images “never blink and they are there forever — and once retrieved, the LCBO screenshots circulate to every officer in the division, often forming the basis for future arrests.

“In the short term they get away with the bottle,” he said. “But in the longer term, because every theft is captured on video, the chances are good they are not gonna get away with it.”

Mitch Potter is a reporter and feature writer based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @MPwrites

Patty Winsa is a Toronto-based data reporter. Reach her via email: pwinsa@thestar.ca

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