BIG INTERVIEW: Co-op director of group risk Phil Willsmer

Retail crime, comprising shoplifting, employee or supplier fraud, organised retail crime and administrative errors, cost the retail industry more than $112 billion (£70 billion) globally last year, according to new research released this week.

The Global Retail Theft Barometer by Euromonitor International, conducted in conjunction with security solutions provider Checkpoint Systems, investigated activity in 16 countries and 160,000 stores in total. It comes after the British Retail Consortium (BRC) revealed earlier this year that the cost of retail crime to the UK alone in 2011-2012 was £1.6 billion, with e-crime accounting for 37% of the total.

New tools and techniques to help combat such crime, be it RFID systems, CCTV innovation or new online fraud prevention measures, appear on the market on a regular basis, but the director of group risk services at The Co-operative Group, Phil Willmer, says that constant technical innovation is a "double-edged sword" for retailers in the battle to beat the fraudsters.

"The problem is, as technology moves on, the fraudsters are forever looking at new ways to commit fraud," he explained.

"Technology helps us but it also helps them. The police are quite a way behind fraudsters in the technology stakes, and there are a lot of things online retailers do, where the police don't yet have the technical knowhow or expertise."

Willsmer acknowledges that there is "a lot of work being done" across the various police forces, led by City of London Police in particular, looking at how to improve the situation and get to grips with eCommerce crime and online fraud.

Much of the work was detailed at the recent BRC Retail Crime and Loss Prevention event in London, where security professionals in the retail industry gathered alongside police and other local authority representatives to discuss ways in which the different stakeholders can work together to build up its defences against the criminals.

Roy Smith, head of business crime and partnership team at the Metropolitan Police, said that his force faces a number of challenges in defining what constitutes e-crime, cybercrime and cyber-enabled crime, but he described solving this issue as "very much top of [the] agenda". Steve Head, commander at City of London Police, explained during the event that for the first time ever, more than half of fraud on his books is cyber-enabled.

Measures are evidently being taken to understand this relatively new form of retail crime that is emanating from the internet, but it is no small task.

Willsmer said: "As technology gets better and the more counter measures you put in, the faster fraudsters will find a way of getting round it – you'll never stop it, it's a case of how you displace it and it's an endless battle.

"Technology can be our saviour, but it can also be the saviour for the criminals as well. It's definitely a double-edged sword, a problem that will get bigger the more retailers go online to drive their businesses."

So what can be done to try and stem this growing problem, which persists both online and in the physical retail environment? One huge obstacle that sits in the way of progress is that there is still no true definition of what constitutes business crime, but there is significant work being undertaken to try and find one.

DCC Sue Fish, the recently-appointed national lead for business crime at the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), has been working closely with Willsmer and other security bosses across the retail and wider business worlds. Willsmer is confident that progress is being made in mapping out the path to success, but it isn't a fast process.

Once a definition is in place, police will have a method by which they can measure and tag business crime. The thinking from Willsmer and retail bosses like him is that, until this occurs, the police will simply focus on issues that can be clearly measured.

"There are pockets of best practice around the different police forces and business crime leads are starting to appear in every force," he explained.

"Until you know the size of the problem, you can't act. Once things are tagged, the problem we have got will quickly become apparent."

Different barometers tracking business crime place it anywhere between 15-25% of all crime, and Willsmer believes if it can be officially demonstrated that a large percentage of crime is taking place in a certain sector then police are more likely to put a large emphasis on that sector.

"The best way forward is through ACPO. We've done a lot of work with Fish and it's going through the ACPO chambers of decision making and hopefully by the end of the year we will have a single definition of business crime across all 43 police forces in the UK."

Another issue Willsmer and his peers face is that the business community is made up of many different sectors that potentially have conflicting priorities when it comes to working with the authorities. In the Co-op man's words, there are "a lot of egos and silos that need to be broken down".

The plan in the new year will be for the different trade associations to come together and find a common argument on business crime, in order for them to avoid appearing fragmented in the eyes of the authorities. It is thought that with a joined-up approach, there is a better chance of bringing down theft, fraud and other crime in the world of commerce.

The UK retail industry is made up of approximately three million workers and is the nation's largest private sector employer. Due to its size, retail is naturally one of the hardest hit of areas when it comes to crime, so there is an argument that it needs to be taking the lead in tackling it.

"We are the biggest private sector employer and as a result of that we'll have the biggest losses, and we have to be at the forefront of reducing crime," Willsmer asserted.

"That's why we've been lobbying for a business crime definition for so long. With the BRC and other trade bodies it is absolutely what we need to do; we should be leading the way.

"With the partnership with ACPO and Sue, the relationship between us and the authorities is probably the best it's ever been, so there is a real opportunity and we need to seize it and deliver."

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