David, 26, is shoplifting peanut butter from the Stadium Shopping Center in Portland, Ore. He has been living on the streets for about a month. Already addicted to heroin, he had started using fentanyl four days earlier. The store’s personnel spot him and call their private security firm Echelon Protective Services. They know that if they call the police, they might have to wait up to two hours. And this situation needs to be dealt with right away. The shopping center’s management pays Echelon to patrol the area at all times.

The guards turn up within minutes and apprehend the shoplifter. What should they do next? They can wait for the police. But that would be a waste of time. Even if the police did arrest the shoplifter, he would be back on the streets shortly. The local DA isn’t going to prosecute this kind of low-level shoplifting.

What Echelon’s guards do instead is talk to the man. “We come in there and say, ‘Look, I’m your life associate. I’m your friend,’” says Alex Stone, founder of Echelon. The guards spend an hour just getting to know David. They notice he has luggage with him that appears to be valuable, maybe even worth $1,000. He must have a family somewhere.

They ask David for his full name and send it back to Echelon’s in-house private investigator. It doesn’t take long for the PI to turn up a missing person’s report from Pennsylvania. Echelon contacts the man’s family, who confirm that he is their missing son.

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