Attack of the Screaming Beer Thieves?

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Greg Rickabaugh never intended to spook local convenience store operators. His article, "Market Clerks Cope With Alcohol Swipers," which ran in the Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle last week drew a balanced, locally focused account of the convenience store industry's problem with beer runs.

Yet Rickabaugh's report that the nationwide beer-rustling trend had earned the nickname "Yahooing" among certain groups of young perpetrators -- particularly in Texas -- caught the eye of the regional media in a big way. Some of these young beer thieves, Rickabaugh explained, will deliberately draw attention to themselves by shouting "Yahoo!" while committing their crime.

During the weekend, the story made the rounds of local Georgia newspapers and news-based Web sites, including that of WXIA-TV, Atlanta's NBC affiliate.

By the time The Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran the story on Monday, the headline had been translated to "Screaming Beer Thieves Puzzle Police." The story stated that "robberies have been reported as far away as Texas, and it's become known as 'Yahooing beer.' The problem has been particularly bad in Augusta."

This simply isn't the case, explained Major Ken Autry of the [Augusta] Richmond County Sheriff's Dept. While Augusta, like any city, has problems with shoplifting, "I don't see [beer runs] as being on the rise here, and the majority of our cases don't involve kids at all -- our suspects are primarily adults. We don't have a rash of thefts here where people run out of the door shouting 'Yahoo.'"

Rickabaugh agreed with Autry's assessment, and noted that his article did not imply a direct connection between "Yahooing" and the Augusta problem.

Running Scared
Of course, beer theft is still a serious industry problem; on Monday, a group of criminals dressed in Grim Reaper masks and armed with a shotgun stole beer from a Kokomo, Ind.-based c-store. Last week, two young Houston men were critically injured in an automobile accident while fleeing police after a beer run.

To make the working environment as safe as possible for employees, "virtually every retailer has a policy of non-resistance," explained Jeff Lenard, director of communications for the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS). "There is nothing inside the store more valuable than an employee or customer."

Clerks should be well informed of these policies, as well as other policies -- such as what to do about taking down license plate numbers and calling police.

Of course, news of these non-resistance policies can become more widespread as stories such as this one gain momentum locally in the news media -- arguably fanning the flames of a latent trend.

Rickabaugh, who often generates stories from local police reports, said that the brazenness of the crime had led to his report. "It's similar to gas drive-offs," he told CSNews Online, "but this is different. They're bolder, they walk right in front of the clerk."

Autry, on the other hand, argued that most c-store owners already do a great deal to protect themselves. "They have video cameras, and they get tag numbers, but just like dealing with any crime, there are some that aren't going to get solved."

Lenard said that Odessa, Texas-based Southwest Convenience Stores LLC, which has since been acquired by Alon USA, had deterred such non-violent crimes by adopting a policy of prosecution, posting security camera stills of thieves on store windows, and offering a small reward for information leading to their arrest. When the program was introduced, beer runs fell by 67 percent, and there was a notable decline in gas drive-offs and shoplifting as well.

Southwest was eventually able to leverage its local media, which ran stories on the policy, along with occasional photos of the thieves. Having a solid deterrence policy in place could allow other retailers to do the same, especially if the local news hounds report an attack of the screaming beer thieves in other regions.