Those on the hunt for student “bookleggers” trafficking in stolen texts at Canada’s universities know the fraudsters come in all shapes and with all kinds of scams.
It might be as subtle as Mr. Four-Eyes Pocket-Protector Flood Pants–traditionally a bigger fan of Ensign Chekhov than Anton Chekhov–trying to hock a tome of Russian plays. Or it can be as obvious as the shifty-eyed undergrad in the dark glasses, with a fake ID, a hoodie over her head like a brooding Jedi, pawning the same anatomy textbook five times in five months and, unlike other students, not bothering to dicker over price.
Or it can be as galling as the student caught on security camera taking a textbook off the new-books shelf, delicately peeling off the price tag with his fingernail, then sauntering over to the buy-back table to sell it. It’s an age-old scam to defeat a program aimed at helping students buy the books they need without leaving them bankrupt. Many universities, which often sell new textbooks at $170 or more, will buy back some of the books at a reduced price and then resell them to other students looking to save some cash.
At the University of Alberta, the booklegging racket is small but growing. From January to March this year, there were 14 cases on campus, more than double compared with the same three-month period a year earlier. “I think word just got out that, ‘Hey, you can do this and make cash really quick,’ so they started coming, getting their friends or affiliates onboard,” says campus security officer Stephanie Hartwig.
She says it’s not a Dickensian tale of grubby first-year urchins fencing books to put Kraft Dinner on the table. “They seem to be well-off students, students who come from families who are able to afford their tuition easily,” says Hartwig. “They want spending money.” She says the serial thieves have netted $500 or more, no small feat when you consider they are stealing a $200 textbook, then selling it for, say, $30.
“Some of them have done it over and over again and that’s how they get caught. It raises red flags on the system,” says Hartwig, who notes that sellers have to show student ID.
“They try and wear disguises. There’s one girl, she would always put on a baseball cap, sunglasses and wear her hood up, and she never looked the sales clerk in the eye. She came in three and four times like that. That raised a lot of red flags. “And they always wear gloves when they handle the books. They think they’re going to get fingerprinted or something.”
At the University of British Columbia, bookleggers number about one or two a year, still enough for staff to keep their eyes peeled, says Debbie Harvie, says who oversees the UBC bookstore. “Sometimes it is a ring. We noticed a couple of individuals recently. There was a spotter and person trying to take the books.”
The university has security in place: sellers have to present ID; the transactions are kept on computer and the store has one book-buyer with the skill of a bloodhound at sniffing out scams. The store also has cameras and undercover security. There are regular audits to check on those returning a large number of books.
The camera does the work for them on the more brazen ones. “They’re the (students) who peel the sticker off and walk across the store to sell it to the buy-back table,” says Harvie. The bigger problem, she says, remains shoplifting among students who are spending anywhere from a few dollars for a paperback for literature class all the way up to those who have to buy UBC’s top-end model–a $500 medical anatomy textbook.
In January to April 2009, they caught 11 shoplifters; this year they had 14. “Of more concern is (the fact the shoplifters) often have the money in their wallets. I think sometimes it’s a crime of opportunity,” says Harvie. “A lot of times they think nobody would notice. (Once they’re caught) there are a lot of tears and (a lot of), ‘Please don’t call the police,’ but it is our policy to call police because it’s part of the education process on shoplifting.”
At McGill University in Montreal, Jason Kack, general manager of the student bookstore, says there was a big problem with serial textbook fencing a few years ago. “It had gotten to the point where it was quite bad,” he says. “Then they put certain (security) things in place and slowed it down. They figured out who was doing it. Once those people were identified and taken care of, it stopped becoming an issue, but we always have some.
“We figure it out at inventory when we see shrinkage levels on certain textbooks. Then we start looking for the obvious things–who are the people we see more often than not? Who are the people that come back to buy back? Who are the people who are selling newer books?”
He declined to discuss the security measures in place, but confirmed hot items tended to be commerce, science, medicine and math textbooks–hardcover tomes of $180 or more. “The books were not so expensive to stand out, but expensive enough to be worth the while.”
At Edmonton’s Grant MacEwan University, spokesman David Beharry says students have to present ID and their course listing when selling their books.
“If they’re returning a book not part of their course list that’s also looked into,” he says. “When students are returning books it (now) does take a while longer, but they have to understand it’s for security reasons.”
He says the digital age has cut down on the crime and also opened new avenues for students trying to save a few dollars. Some textbooks can be acquired online at reduced prices. And some students might also be able to point, click and download just the chapters their professors are focusing on. “It is the next trend (in book buying),” says Beharry. “It’s probably not even the next trend. It’s a trend that’s already here.”
The Canadian Press