Keeping Would-Be Thieves At Bay - buying security systems for business

Janine Latus Musick is a free-lance writer in Columbia, Mo.

Before choosing a security system for your firm, decide what you want to protect and how high-tech a deterrent you need. Universal Gear in Washington, D.C., sells hip casual wear for young men. To deter shoplifting, owner David Franco aimed a security camera at the front door. But fleet-footed thieves who grabbed fashion statements and ran out had little or no fear of being stopped.

Sure, shoplifters' pictures were being captured by the camera, but thefts and suspicious activities weren't being spotted in time for managers to take effective action. So Franco installed a four-camera system that displays images from key locations throughout the store on split screens in the manager's office and the executive offices. "I can see in real time what's happening on the floor," Franco says. 'I'm looking for suspicious activity from potential shoplifters as well as at my staff's work performance." Although Franco chose a closed-circuit television (CCTV) system to help deter theft at his store, a similar system might be too much or too little for other types of business. No security system is the perfect choice for every business.

The system that would be right for your company depends on the kind of business you run. A good lock might be enough if you're running an upholstery shop, but high-tech, controlled-access doorways and video surveillance might be necessary if you're a software developer. Before investing in a security system, ask yourself what security threat you're trying to minimize. "Security has to be specifically tailored to the application," says Isaac Papier, manager of engineering services for Underwriters Laboratory, which, in conjunction with the insurance industry, has been rating security systems for more than 75 years. "The business owner needs to sit down and carefully think about what represents a threat." Nationwide, shoplifting costs U.S. businesses an estimated $30 billion a year, according to the Insurance Information Institute in New York City. Even more staggering is the more than $100 billion that researchers say is lost to embezzlement. The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners in Austin, Texas, says businesses lose closer to $400 billion--or about $9 a day per employee--when other forms of employee theft are included. In convenience stores, for example, about 80 percent of what's stolen goes home with employees, says Art Lunt, general manager for the 18-store Henny Penny chain in Connecticut. Each of his stores has at least three CCTV cameras; one catches the face of everyone who comes through the door, another is behind the cash register, and a third is aimed down the aisles to spot shoplifters.

In fact, convenience-store owners have found that the visibility of cameras and monitors appears to deter robberies and theft. Not only are the stores made safer by the installation of such systems but profits are bolstered as well when fewer hoagies and candy bars go out the door in employees' pockets. In 1996, the latest year for which the Security Industry Association (SIA) has figures, sales of CCTV systems totaled more than $758 million. Since then, the total probably has doubled, says Richard Chace, director of communications for the SIA, based in Alexandria, Va. Likewise, sales of systems that limit people's access to particular rooms or buildings have jumped from $1.5 billion in 1996 to a projected $5 billion this year, he says. A lot of that growth has come from insurance-industry demands that hotels make their guest rooms accessible by access cards rather than keys by 2000 in order to remain eligible for insurance. It's harder to break into a room with an electronic lock than one with a tumbler lock, Chace says. Overall, U.S. businesses spent $82.3 billion on security systems in 1996, according to the SIA. Following are the major types of systems chosen by companies to meet their particular security needs. Closed-Circuit TV "CCTV cameras have gone from being big and bulky to being fiber-optic lenses you could stick in the eye of a teddy bear," says Chace, "On average, they've gone from the size of a shoe box down to about the size of a bar of soap." Do-it-yourself models are available, but most businesses hire a security-system contractor for purchase and installation. Franco of Universal Gear uses a professionally installed system made by Ultrak, Inc., of Carrollton, Texas.

The company also offers a do-it-yourself model, sold under the Exxis brand name at discount clubs nationwide. The systems cost as little as $200 for a 12-inch monitor and one camera. Additional cameras and bigger monitors are available. There are substantial differences, though, between a do-it-yourself model and one installed by professionals. "A professional will be better able to understand the business owner's needs and translate those needs into the right product in the right place," says Jeff Blum, vice president for strategic development at Ultrak. In addition, professionally installed systems have features not available on the discount-club model. These features "can be important or completely irrelevant" depending on the circumstances, Blum says. For example, he explains, "at a grocery store, they might want a picture of everyone who comes in the door, so they position a camera on the glass entrance doors. But every morning the sun comes in and the do-it-yourself camera doesn't have backlight compensation, so the camera is useless for three hours every morning." With professional installation, however, the sunlight problem would be prevented. Off-Site Monitoring Systems with off-site video monitoring are available, allowing someone to watch your business from another location and to phone authorities if something looks amiss. Or a company's owner can tune in from home to watch employees at work. The latest off-site monitoring equipment by Ultrak is plugged into a laptop computer and costs $599. With some of the newest combinations of alarms and CCTV systems, the pictures that cameras transmit to monitors are also transmitted automatically to a central station if the alarm goes off. The rest of the time, the pictures are transmitted only to monitors. If you're trying to catch embezzlers, a hidden system is best. But if you're trying to deter theft by employees or the public, make your system as obvious as possible, says Carl Spiegel, president of Alarm Security Protection Co. in Waterford, Conn., and president-elect of the National Burglar and Fire Alarm Association, a trade group based in Bethesda, Md. Put the cameras in the open so that someone checking out the place for a holdup will see them. Put signs on doors and in windows to announce that cameras are in use. Some stores and restaurants mount monitors where anyone can see them. Convenience stores, for example, often mount a monitor above the cash register so everyone knows they're being photographed. "It's all a way of communicating to people who come in there that they're being watched," says Spiegel.

Controlled Access Some businesses that want to control who comes and goes are replacing door keys with codes, swipe cards, and even - fingerprint and retinal readers, which provide more-sophisticated means of verifying the identification of individuals. The newest identification cards keep track of which cards are on the premises so employees can't hand an ID card to someone else to use after they have entered. In addition, there are systems that serve as electronic time clocks by recording when employees using particular cards enter and leave the premises. Such systems cost from $5 to $25 per door. Unlike keys, codes can be changed easily and identification cards can be deactivated to block former employees from entering the building. Miros, Inc., based in Wellesley, Mass., manufactures a facial-recognition system that stores images of the faces of people who are allowed through a particular door, then compares the stored images with the faces of people who try to enter- all in about three seconds. If someone who is not authorized tries to enter, the computer saves the person's image so it can be examined later by a business owner or another authorized person. Miros' systems start at about $5,000 per door, but as the cost of digital cameras drops, so will the price of the image-scanner system, says David Greer, Miros' director of product management. Time-Delayed Exits In theory, it's a good feeling to slide a key-operated deadbolt lock into position and head for your car.

In reality, a deadbolt lock on every door might be in violation of fire codes. "You can't do something that could trap somebody inside your store," Spiegel says. "Even if I'm a burglar who hid in the bathroom, if they find me dead by that back door [that won't open], you're in trouble." That's why businesses install emergency exits that open without keys or magnetic cards. Because anyone can exit at any time, these doors typically are equipped with alarms. In the past, those alarms didn't do much to stop determined grab-and-run thieves. Newer emergency exits have a small delay between the time the door bar is hit and the time the magnetic lock allows the door to open. The systems were designed for museums, but retailers, hospitals, and nursing homes use them, keeping inventory and patients from going out the back door. Arden Courts facilities, owned by ManorCare Health Services, based in Gaithersburg, Md., are homes for people who have Alzheimer's disease. ManorCare uses delayed-exit doors made by Securitron Magnalock Corp. of Sparks, Nev. If a resident pushes against the exit door, an alarm sounds, giving health-care personnel on the premises time to get to the door, which doesn't unlock for 15 seconds. "This brief delay is sufficient for staff members to arrive at the door and assure the resident's safety," says Chris Davis, director of safety and loss prevention at ManorCare. Alarm Monitoring No matter which form of alarm system you choose, pay the extra money to have it monitored, experts advise. You're most likely to catch thieves and vandals-and to save money on your insurance-if someone somewhere responds quickly to an alarm. Most security systems are connected to a monitoring service by a phone line. But phone lines can be cut by savvy thieves.

Systems that transmit via radio waves or cellular telephone are more secure, though more expensive. A basic alarm system can cost a couple of hundred dollars to purchase and install, plus about $25 a month for monitoring, according to the SIA. A cellular-transmission backup system will cost an additional $700 to $1,500, Spiegel says, and an extra $15 to $20 a month for monitoring. Some insurance companies offer discounts that offset the additional cost of a cellular transmission system. There are lots of whiz-bang systems out there designed to protect your business. The SIA's World Wide Web site, at www.siaonline,org, and magazines such as Security Sales, Security Dealer and Marketing, and Access Control and Security System Integration can give you an idea of the range of products. But before you buy anything, check with your insurance agent. Odds are that your carrier will have underwriting standards that specify the kind of security system that is best for your inventory and location. Even businesses with virtually no inventory need to protect themselves. Accountants and lawyers, for example, have files that must be kept confidential. Technology companies have to protect the secrets connected with products under development. And even the smallest graphics-design company can suffer if someone breaks in and steals its computers. "What both you and your insurance company want to do is minimize your losses," says Spiegel. Charlie Nusbaum, president of S,L. Nusbaum Insurance Agency in Norfolk, Va., says: "You have to ask yourself, 'If I invest in a security system, how long will it take me to earn back my savings from insurance?' "The investment you make in the security system is a legitimate business expense that is tax-deductible and lowers your insurance premiums," Nusbaum says. "Plus, there's the peace of mind you get when you put your head on the pillow at night that your security system is protecting the assets of your business. That's worth a lot."

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