THOMASVILLE -- The young woman cashier at a Smith Avenue store cast a keen eye on a male teenager leaving the business late on a Sunday afternoon.

"What do you have under your shirt?" she asked the teen, while continuing to check out customers. "Nothing," the male responded.

With a little encouragement from the store manager, the teenager pulled a case of orange drinks from under his shirt.

He walked briskly from the business, the store manager close behind, and joined a cohort behind the store. The two males ran east on railroad tracks.

Across town, fish food is a popular item to lift at a Thomasville pet store.

Jewelry is popular with teens bent on stealing at a department store.

Expensive items are the biggest targets at another store.

"It's only like a dollar and a half," employee Josh Beever said about the fish food stolen frequently at Pet Stop.

Two bulldog puppies were taken from glass enclosures at the front of the East Jackson Street store owned by Beever's mother, Cindy Beever.

Josh Beever said people planning to steal usually enter the store in a group, spread out and distract employees.

A teen taking a $10 ring at Belk in Gateway Shopping Center is caught on a security camera.

Shoplifting is a year-round problem at the store, said manager Gene Kowalski. The activity does not necessarily increase during the holidays.

Belk shoplifters are not allowed to pay for the merchandise. The incident is not forgotten.

"We prosecute everybody," Kowalski said. "It's a corporate policy."

Loss-prevention staff is employed at the store year-round. The business also is equipped with security cameras.

"I can't typify a shoplifter," the Belk manager said.

Thomasville police respond to all shoplifting calls. Officers investigate the complaint to determine if an offense occurred.

"If it is determined a crime has occurred, the suspect is transported to jail," said Capt. Troy Rich, commander of the Thomasville Police Department Criminal Investigations Division.

If the offense is a misdemeanor -- theft of an item valued at less than $500 -- it is the store's responsibility to take out a warrant. Police fill out a form for the merchant in a misdemeanor shoplifting and provide other information to use in securing a warrant.

"All juveniles are investigated by the police, misdemeanor or felony shoplifting," Rich explained. "It has to go through Juvenile Court, and it's our responsibility."

A felony shoplifting charge results when the merchandise stolen is valued at more than $500.

Shoplifters who get away at Goody's Family Clothing leave signs of their deeds -- discarded price tags and cut boxes.

A spokesman at the Gateway store said the crime increases during the holiday shopping season. More expensive items are more likely to be taken, the employee said.

Goody's prosecutes all shoplifters.

The crime is not as rampant in downtown Thomasville. Two downtown merchants attributed the lack of shoplifting to the sizes of the businesses.

Charlotte Hungate, an owner at Hicks Clothing Co., on North Broad Street, said that because her shop is small, personnel are able to keep an eye on suspicious shoppers.

"On occasion, we've had shoplifters," Hungate explained.

Store personnel have a method for preventing shoplifting. They put the plan into action when necessary.

Hungate said that to her knowledge, the 68-year-old business has not experienced a shoplifting incident this holiday shopping season.

At The Gift Shop, a block away on South Broad, owner Diane Parker said the size of her shop allows personnel to keep an eye on potential shoplifters.

Also, Parker said, "an empty spot" is easily and quickly detected if something is taken.

"We have some," Parker said. "It's not a huge problem."

Parker said an annual inventory of every store item is checked carefully against the merchandise that should be on hand.

Senior reporter Patti Dozier can be reached at (229) 226-2400, ext. 220.

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