12/23/2011 12:53 EST | Updated 02/22/2012 05:12 EST

Shoppers expected to steal $1.84 billion in merchandise this holiday season

PORTLAND, Ore. - More than spirits are being lifted this holiday season.

During the four weeks leading up to this Christmas, an estimated $1.84 billion in merchandise will be shoplifted from retailers in the U.S., according to The Global Retail Theft Barometer. That's up about 6 per cent from $1.7 billion during the same period last year.

"They shoplift for Christmas gifts, they steal for themselves, for their family," says Joshua Bamfield, executive director of the Centre for Retail Research and author of the survey.

The crowded stores and harried clerks make it easier to slip a tablet computer into a purse or stuff a sweater under a coat undetected. But higher joblessness and falling wages have contributed to an even bigger rise this year, with people stealing everything from necessities to luxuries they can no longer afford.

"It's really a question of need versus greed," says Joseph LaRocca, senior advisor of asset protection for the National Retail Federation trade group. "People will rationalize what they are stealing: 'Oh, I'm feeling the economy. I lost my job'."

Some experts say shoplifters are stealing for reasons this holiday season that have nothing to do with economic turmoil. Among them, some do it for a rush or thrill. For others, it's about filling a void. Still others are trying to relieve anxiety, boredom or depression — all emotions that are particularly common during the holidays.

"Shoplifting is generally a crime of opportunity— and opportunities abound at the holiday," says Barbara Staib, a spokeswoman for the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention, a non-profit that provides shoplifting prevention programs. "The stressors that come with the holiday will certainly help them rationalize their need for bad behaviour."

An estimated one in 11 Americans shoplift, according to the National Association of Shoplifting Prevention, based on research collected on people who enrol in its prevention courses.

Three-quarters of shoplifters are adults — equally men and women. More than 70 per cent of shoplifters say their crime was spontaneous.

All the stealing translates into hundreds of billions of dollars in losses for retailers each year.

Theft of all kinds — including shop lifting, organized retail crime, employee theft and vendor fraud — cost retailers more than $119 billion worldwide in the 12 months ending in June, up from up nearly 7 per cent from the same period in 2010. That's the biggest gain ever recorded by the Global Retail Theft Barometer since it began the survey in 2007.

About 36 per cent of losses come from shoplifting. Employee theft represents about 44 per cent. Vendor theft and administrative error make up the remainder.

Several major chains declined to discuss their efforts to thwart the growing theft in stores by shoppers and employees. But the NRF says big merchants are spending about $11.5 billion a year to fend off losses.

They're trying to improve their technology, such as surveillance methods and tagging of merchandise with security devices. They also are working with competitors and law enforcement agencies more than ever by sharing more information, such as what criminals are taking and how they are targeting individual merchants.

Theft drives up retailers' costs and those are often passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices.

"I think one of the things we have to remember is shoplifting is a crime," says Staib, with the prevention group. "Shoplifting is not just an economic issue, it's a social issue."