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Montana Department of Justice hires first organized retail theft agent

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Posted at 2:20 PM, Jul 05, 2024

BILLINGS — Swiping the small things has become a big problem for Montana retailers. In fact, the Department of Justice recently hired a new position dedicated to tracking down criminals connected to multi-state theft rings.

Her name is Agent Sara Lubke, and Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen officially swore her in as the state’s first-ever organized retail theft agent in April. Her role is tracking down thieves who go from store to store and city to city stealing and selling their loot online, often getting away with it with little consequence.

“Having someone with a statewide position is really advantageous because I can connect cases from here in Billings to other cities across Montana,” said Lubke.

Shoplifting scenes like those posted on social media by a local Billings Ace Hardware store are all too common, and according to officials the punishment doesn’t fit the crime with a $500 citation for a nearly $1500 theft.

“They are pretty savvy. They're staying underneath the felony amount. So when you handle it as a misdemeanor, far less sanctions, pretty much handled with a citation and an expectation to show up in court, which many times they don't, and so they operate with impunity,” said Billings Police Chief Rich St. John.

“It's not just simple shoplifting. It's organized groups coming in, stealing multiple items, and then going and reselling them either online through pawn shops, in person, things like that, and then those proceeds go to fund other crimes, your violent crimes, gun crimes, drugs, human trafficking, even all the way up to terrorism,” said Lubke.

The problem is so severe that the Montana Retail Association, representing 500 businesses statewide, formed an organized retail crime alliance group, where loss prevention teams meet with law enforcement on a regular basis.

“A loss prevention guy from a store would say how much they're losing, the most alarming one was a million dollars a year, and I thought, wow, that's $20,000 a week in shoplifting,” said Brad Griffin, President Montana Retail Association.

Security measures are taken, but employee safety comes first, meaning shoplifters are simply walking out the door.Some retailers do have security on site, and that's mostly for being a deterrent and then also being a good witness,” said Lubke.

On rare occasions, a brave business owner will take matters into their own hands.

“Either my husband or myself will approach them and we will get the items back, and we will tell them they are not welcome in our store,” said Amy Pawlowski in 2023 prior to her store closing for good.

This former Billings store, Liberty and Vine, built a shoplifting wall of shame.

“The jail is full, so when somebody does shoplift, they don’t go to jail now. They get a notice to appear. I think the fact that DCI has dedicated an agent specific to that, and assigned it to Billings, speaks volumes to the problem that we're seeing here,” said St. John.

"The shoplifting problem has box stores preparing for the worst, sometimes even blockading their doors when closed to prevent smash and grabs like seen in other states. On the consumer side, law enforcement warns that if you find a deal too good to be true, it probably is. If you do suspect that something you see advertised for sale is stolen, call and report it to law enforcement and we can look into it,” said Lubke.