This is the time of year when stores are crowded with holiday shoppers and merchants do their biggest business of the year. Unfortunately, it's also the season for shoplifters - and everybody else pays for their thefts.

In the past five years, shoplifting has increased to where it ranks at slightly more than 2 percent of total sales. Losses across the nation reached $1.8 billion last year, up from $1.5 billion in 1986.Who does the shoplifting? All kinds of people.

Of those caught stealing, 43 percent were under 18, and slightly more men than women were apprehended. Maybe the men are more clumsy, but judging from the items stolen, more of the thieves were women.

Among items most frequently taken, trendy women's clothing, including designer lingerie costing up to $400 per item, topped the list. Other heavy losses were in records and tapes, and electronic items such as personal stereos. Jewelry, men's clothing, and shoes were the least likely to suffer theft.

As the billion-dollar figures show, shoplifting is anything but an inconsequential lark. Because of the heavy losses they suffer, merchants are not in the mood to let a shoplifter go simply with an apology and payment, even though in many puzzling cases, the thief has enough money or credit cards to pay for the item being stolen.

When store security officers catch shoplifters, police are called and the person is arrested. Most Utah stores prosecute shoplifting to the full extent of the law. A shoplifting conviction can ruin a young person's record, make it hard to get a job, and cause embarrassment that can crop up years later.

Utah laws have been toughened in the past decade, and stores can detain suspected shoplifters, without waiting to see if they leave the store. Charges can range from a misdemeanor - with fines, cost of the merchandise, attorney fees, and court costs - to a felony, depending on the value of the item taken. Felony theft can result in a prison term.

Risking the future for a handful of merchandise is a silly gamble, even for a short-sighted adolescent, let alone a supposedly mature adult.