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Most Stolen Products: Gadgets, Games, and Smartphones

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Shoplifters stay up on what's "in" -- and move fast when a product is hot.

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In a classic 1996 episode of The Simpsons, a gullible Homer marvels at heavily discounted electronics items for sale at an outlet mall. When Bart argues the products are knockoffs, Homer scoffs, "I know a genuine Panaphonics when I see it. And look, there's Magnetbox and Sorny!"

The gray market and its peddling of counterfeit versions of popular name-brand electronics is ubiquitous enough to have made it into a Simpsons episode but the black market for authentic electronics can also rake in some serious d'oh.

"Small electronics are 'in' and many people like to stay current with the newest and greatest gadgets," says Mark R. Doyle, president of Jack L. Hayes International, a loss prevention/shrinkage control consulting business. The "problem" facing the five-finger artist specializing in electronics merchandise, according to Doyle, is that despite their hefty initial price tags, electronic items lose value over time so the contraband needs to be unloaded quickly for optimal profit.

Retailers face a catch-22 when exhibiting this electronic catnip in their stores, needing to keep products openly displayed for maximum exposure and within easy reach of customers while, at the same time, keeping the small, highly portable devices out of crooks' pockets. "When openly displaying these 'hot' [electronics], retailers usually display them in direct sight lines of cashier stations, or in highly visible areas (end caps, etc.) where it is difficult for a shoplifter to get the privacy they need to commit their theft," Doyle says. Retailers also protect their high-tech goods with EAS (Electronic Article Surveillance) tags and by keeping a watchful eye on CCTV surveillance monitors.

Anti-theft strategies like these are working, according to a National Retail Security Survey released this summer. The data, presented at the National Retail Federation's Loss Prevention Conference and EXPO, reveal a slight decrease in retail fraud and shoplifting with $36.5 billion in retail losses in 2008 to $33.5 billion last year. In 2009, shoplifting accounted for $11.7 billion of the total loses, trailing only employee theft, which comprised 43% of shrinkage.

In 2008, the FBI's National Crime Information Center conducted its own research on the most stolen electronic toys and found laptop computers to be the most sought-after devices among thieves, with 109,000 stolen that year alone -- a 48% increase since 2006. And the FBI should know a thing or two about laptop theft. Until recently, the investigative body charged with protecting the security of America and whose name bears the backronym "Fidelity, Bravery, Integrity," was in the habit of losing three to four laptops a month to theft. Let's hope the government invested in some tracking software so the FBI can put its investigative skills to work locating its stolen laptops on a Google (GOOG) map.

With all the exciting BlackBerrys (RIMM), iPhones (AAPL), and Droid phones (MOT) on the market, it's no wonder that smartphones ranked number two among the sticky-fingered set. The number of reported cell phone-related thefts climbed 33%, from 60,100 in 2006 to nearly 80,300 in 2008. Of course, any cell phone user worth his or her salt knows they can protect their investment with any number of GPS tracking apps whilst treating their thieves' ears to an obnoxious siren.

Criminals have given new meaning to the term "idiot box," lifting more than 53,000 TV sets at an increase of 130% since 2006. While televisions aren't exactly the kind of compact gadget you can fold up in a newspaper and carry surreptitiously out the door of your neighborhood Best Buy (BBY), they're certainly more portable than they were back in the day when the average living room set weighed more than a Ford Fiesta. (Just ask the armless thief in Germany who famously walked out of an electronic store with a new TV strapped to his chest a few years ago.)

Left on the list of larceny-worthy gadgets among our felonious friends are stereos, GPS units, video-game systems like the Xbox (MSFT) and Playstation (SNE), digital cameras, music players, wireless routers, and those itty bitty skinny memory sticks that already disappear when turned to the side.

Only time will tell how refined and well-read our criminal population has become once reported theft statistics for the iPad, Kindle (AMZN), and Nook (BKS) become available.
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