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‘Tis the season for spending time with family and friends and the inevitable yuletide spree of shopping and gift-giving. Suburban malls and high-street stores are jammed in the lead-up to the holidays, as Torontonians make a final festive retail push before taking a breather and preparing for Boxing Week bargain bonanzas.

Unfortunately, this is also the time of year when busy retailers must contend with wide-scale theft. Statistics show that Canadian businesses lose more than $3 billion annually to crime, including both internal (e.g., employee) and external shoplifting that eats into profits and compromises retailers’ competitiveness. Rather than tackling the problem head-on, a new Toronto Police Service pilot project is moving in a very different direction.

Toronto Police Service introduces Stop Theft 

First-time shoplifters caught pilfering items within the boundaries of the city’s 51 and 52 divisions will no longer be prosecuted under the six-month Stop Theft program, an initiative that will permit private security and theft-prevention guards to effectively catch and release shoplifters after documenting their personal details, then providing them to officers at one of the two divisions participating in the program. The Toronto Police Service’s aim is to free police resources to deal with higher-priority calls.

Non-violent shoplifters who are 18 years of age or older with identification and who are accused of stealing merchandise totaling less than $1,000 are eligible for release. Police will still attend the scene if requested and reserve the right to lay charges by summons in the future, depending on the circumstances.

“It is estimated that retailers lose more than $8 million a day to store theft. What is more worrisome, however, is that today’s thieves are becoming increasingly sophisticated, therefore posing an even greater risk to the health and safety of the Canadian public.”

“What we’ve been trying to do through the modernization process is make sure that our police officers are where the public needs them the most,” Meaghan Gray, acting director of corporate communications for the Toronto Police Service, told the Toronto Star. “And maybe responding to … shoplifting calls — that can be held just as efficiently by a theft prevention officer partnered with us over the phone — allows us to reassign those officers to more pressing calls for service.”

While the efforts of police to more effectively utilize their officers’ time is laudable, the bigger challenge for retailers can be summed up in a statement last year from Diane J. Brisebois, President, and CEO of the Retail Council of Canada:

Removing a theft deterrent

Indeed, the major challenge with the Stop Theft program is that it assumes that shoplifting is limited to individuals such as thrill-seeking teens and those with mental health issues. The reality is that organized crime groups are behind much of the bottom-line killing losses plaguing retailers at all levels. Products such as razor blades and baby formula—the latter used to mask drug trafficking, or sold for a hefty profit on the black market—are two products that have long been a prime retail target for organized crime, making retail loss prevention services more worthwhile.

Holiday Retail Theft shoplifting - hire retail security
Retail loss prevention services are more needed now than ever.

A program such as this removes the most important deterrent to shoplifting—immediate arrest and the threat of significant prosecution. It will be an especially major problem in less-prosperous areas already dealing with high rates of both minor and major crimes.

Retailers will need to continue to invest more in loss-prevention tactics, including the use of civil demand recovery letters, which allow them to sue alleged shoplifters in civil court to recoup the cost of a stolen or damaged item, not to mention costs relating to security patrol and enforcement. It’s safe to assume that overwhelmed police won’t have the time to follow up with an accused shoplifter after an incident, even if the person has a criminal record.

Why? Cash-strapped, budget-conscious police services simply lack the time and money to continue to pursue low-level crimes as they once did. The unfortunate reality is that retailers will pay the price and will need to pursue punitive litigation in an effort to deter would-be thieves—itself a potentially costly process.

Programs such as Stop Theft are designed to modernize the response to some crimes, but in doing so they tend to sow chaos and return us to a time when the low-level crime was rampant. Now, unfortunately, shopkeepers need to be more vigilant than ever, treating every customer as a potential shoplifter, which is always bad for business.

Toronto police introduce new security alarm response rules

Toronto police announced a major change to their burglar alarm response policy. Specifically, they made it clear that they would no longer respond to alarms unless there was verified proof that some form of criminal activity or a threat to an individual was occurring at the time of the notification.

Up to that point, police would always send a car to any commercial or residential property where an alarm was sounded. Better to be safe than sorry, the thinking went. According to their revised guidelines, police will now only respond to an alarm if a threat can be verified by an audio or video device, there are multiple zone activations in effect—which are typical in the case of a break-and-enter with multiple burglars at the crime scene—or they have an eyewitness on the scene calling in the incident. This could include a private security guard.

Toronto police will still attend verifiable alarm calls

Why the change? Police data from 2016 show that 97 percent of security system-related calls were false alarms. “When a panic alarm button is hit, we will absolutely attend,” a police spokesperson told media “Also, if we get evidence there has been a burglary, we will also attend that call too.” Really? It’s reassuring to know that the police will attend actual crimes. Needless to say, this new policy raises several red flags to those of us in the security field. The most obvious being that some break-ins could foreseeably go unchecked because authorities deem them to be false alarms, or because their slow response allows criminals to come and go without the risk of apprehension.

The challenge for commercial property owners is that investigating issues such as potential break-ins or vandalism often takes a back seat to other, more serious crimes.

To help prevent those false alarms, police are advising homeowners and commercial property managers to update key holder information, ensure regular alarm system maintenance, change alarm batteries frequently, keep alarms free of dust and debris and educate residents, tenants, and employees on the system operation protocols.

While the policy change is understandable—having police respond to a plethora of false alarms is, of course, costly and inefficient use of resources—it discounts the possibility that actual crimes may be in progress, with verification coming only when it’s too late. Criminals, being a clever lot, will undoubtedly use these new rules to their advantage if they know the police aren’t going to respond when a standalone alarm is sounded.

Robust security is more important than ever

Most importantly, this underscores the need to maintain 24/7 protection for commercial or residential properties. That means having an active security presence and state-of-the-art monitoring systems—or, at the very least, one of those two crucial components—in place to build out a comprehensive security strategy to protect your assets. With these new rules governing what, exactly, justifies a live police response, investing inadequate security is no longer an option for commercial property or residential property owners, and that includes condominium boards.

As such, most organizations will need to re-evaluate their current alarm systems. Is it enough, or do they now need new cameras? Do those cameras need to be monitored by a security service in order to verify alarm issues? Manufacturers, integrators, monitoring centres, and the end-users need to answer these questions or risk being left behind by these new requirements.

Wincon robot security guard ideal for retail loss prevention services at malls and commercial buildings.
Wincon robot security guard ideal for retail loss prevention services at malls and commercial buildings.

Expect traditional police duties to be increasingly outsourced

Another notable aspect of development is that it highlights an emerging trend across North America: the outsourcing of police duties to private security providers. An important line in the Toronto Police Service’s policy change was the one noting that eyewitness verification of a security breach would warrant an on-site visit from the police. The fact that the eyewitness could be a security guard means that police understand—and perhaps even welcome—the involvement of private security firms.

We can expect to see an even greater willingness on the part of the authorities to accept third-party security help in the years ahead as police budgets are slashed or frozen, and resources are redirected to priority areas. The challenge for commercial property owners is that investigating issues such as potential break-ins or vandalism—although obviously well within the mandate of local police services—often takes a back seat to the prevention or investigation of violent crimes or other, more serious offenses.

Choosing the right security provider is key

Now, it’s important to remember that not only does your organization need security help to keep its assets and people safe, but it also needs to partner with the right security provider, one that takes an integrated approach and provides effective training to its staff. The trend of downloading security duties to private companies shines a spotlight on the processes and procedures that security firms develop and follow. How well trained are their staff? What are their employee retention rates? Is their HR department fronted by a proverbial revolving door as people come and go looking for a job rather than a career? The maturity and sophistication of firms across our industry is now under greater scrutiny than ever before.

So, too, are service providers’ embrace of technology. Everything from drones to patrol robots to leading-edge software and video camera systems are the kind of tools that will become increasingly important in the years ahead. Criminals are always getting smarter. They will find ways to circumvent even the most advanced electronics. Is your security provider equipped to keep pace?

In one sense the Toronto Police Service’s alarm response policy change has a silver lining. Over time, a greater reliance on reliable private security providers will help push out the fringe players from our industry whose inadequate services put clients at greater risk. Because when the police won’t respond without knowing that a crime is in progress, there’s simply too much at stake to put your commercial or residential property and assets in the hands of an unprofessional security firm.

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Winston Stewart, President and CEO
Wincon Security 

Imagine sitting at home, watching television, playing with your kids or settling in for a night’s sleep. Seems utterly routine, right? More so if you have a residential security system, which you assume is providing an added layer of protection for you and your loved ones.

Now imagine carrying out those mundane activities while being watched the entire time by a stranger. That was the terrifying realization for a Saskatoon woman who learned that—unbeknownst to her—another client of the home monitoring company she used to protect her house was, in fact, able to view her every movement using the client’s own system login details.

“We could have easily been broken into or harmed if this had been in the wrong hands,” the customer, Shelan Faith, told CBC news.

So, how was Faith’s home security system breached? Not through the efforts of an experienced hacker, it turns out. The U.S.-based security firm that installed the system told Faith that the mishap was the result of “… a human installation error in connecting to the wrong email address.” It turns out another customer was able to access her in-home camera and approached the company to inform them of the mix-up, but to no avail.

“I don’t think I stopped shaking for days … just to know that somebody could see into my home or access my home.”

Shelan Faith

That customer then proceeded to write a letter to Faith explaining that she had full access to the cameras in her home and provided details of activities she’d witnessed to verify that the letter wasn’t some kind of elaborate hoax. Faith, terrified by the details outlined in the letter, yet relieved that the author wasn’t acting nefariously when trying to inform her of the problem, contacted the security firm who tried to bill her thousands of dollars to cancel her security contract.

After the story broke in the media, the firm agreed to waive those charges and proceeded to cancel Faith’s home monitoring contract free of charge.

The sensational details of this story aside, it’s important to remember that this kind of error is very rare in our industry. But it underscores the vigilance with which customers should vet prospective home monitoring companies, and the threats posed by individuals who do, in fact, attempt to hack security systems.

Buyer beware

When contracting a security firm to protect your home, always research their reputation through word of mouth, online ratings websites or a simple, quick Google search to develop an understanding of its customer service reputation. Once you engage directly with the firm, be prepared to ask tough questions: How sophisticated are their home monitoring systems? Some security camera equipment lacks any type of security software, which can explain why some products cost hundreds of dollars less than other, more reputable systems on the market.

Another major question: Is the security firm reputable, or is it someone who shows up at your door and tells you that they can install a camera or security system in your house? Are their passwords and systems encrypted? How do they ensure that situations such as the one that affected Faith don’t happen to their customers? Do they have an in-house tech team, or do they outsource key functions, such as installation, to a third-party? These are all key queries.

Retail or condo security guard helping customer with directions
Always research the Toronto Security Company you’re thinking of hiring to protect you.

While every customer should search for a great deal on their home security systems, remember the old adage that if it’s too good to be true, it probably is. Companies that offer bargain-basement rates are likely to provide shoddy service—or balk at cancelling service agreements or refuse to address glaring issues when errors (which happen to be their fault!) become obvious. That doesn’t mean you should overpay for home security, but do be aware that not all service providers are created equally.

Changing passwords

Most advanced home security systems nowadays are effectively plug-and-play—that is, once they’re installed, they require very little input from homeowners, except to arm and disarm when away from the house.

But as with any encrypted device, it does require one important step: changing the system’s factory password setting, assuming the technician who installs the system hasn’t already made that crucial change themselves. Why? Thieves are extremely clever and resourceful. As we’ve seen in cases where devices such as mobile phones are hacked, professionals have proven adept at gaining access to factory passwords and using them to break into security systems, rob a property and be gone before a property owner knows what’s happened.

The same individuals also have expertise in hacking systems outright, even without passwords. Working with a reputable service provider who uses the most advanced equipment available—e.g., one that ensures its software is regularly or automatically updated—is one way to mitigate this risk. So, too, is being proactive and changing your password on a regular basis, whether or not you’re the victim of a break-in.

Simply pick a day each month and be sure to change those essential login details (and don’t share them with anyone but your spouse or family members) to reduce your risk.

This wouldn’t have helped in Faith’s case, but if nothing else, we can take a lesson from that unfortunate incident and remind ourselves that home security does, indeed, require a high degree of vigilance on the part of residents.

Winston Stewart, President and CEO
Wincon Security