A bold black, white and a red sign greets customers at a Dart Drug store in downtown Washington: "Three ways to ruin your future," the poster screams. "(Count on it.)" Three ersatz police blotters list the shameful charges: shoplifting, bad check writing and credit card fraud.

Since Sept. 24, nearly 30,000 of the posters have sprung up throughout the metropolitan area -- on employe bulletin boards, shop windows and the tail ends of Metro buses -- carrying their strident message from the Greater Washington Board of Trade.

Members of the board's retail bureau who estimate that area retailers lost more than $500 million since August 1979 to these crimes, feel it may be their most successful effort to date, but some D.C. residents find it one of the most offensive.

"It personally offends me," said Dr. James L. Collins, chairman of the department of psychiatry at Howard University College of Medicine. "I think most blacks would find it offensive because it reinforces a stereotype," that blacks steal.

Jay Chunn, dean of the School of Social Work at Howard University, went further: "I think it's a reflection of insensitivity. I've only noticed them in predominately minority neighborhoods . . . and my initial reaction is that they are primarily geared to minority neighborhoods where [officials] seem to believe the crime rate is higher."

Board of Trade officials adamantly deny that the campaign is being directed mainly at blacks or black neighborhoods.

"Who said it was offensive? Why did they say that?" demanded Leonard Kolodny, manager of the Retail Bureau. "Initially that was a reaction some years ago, but it's died down. In the suburbs there are more whites committing certain crimes; in D.C. there are more blacks so there are more blacks committing certain crimes . . . I have taken great pains to report only metropolitan statistics to avoid giving the suburbs a false sense of security. No one has ever said in recent years that this is offensive."

The Greater Washington Board of Trade, the affluent regional counterpart to the D.C. Chamber of Commerce which counts Bloomingdale's, Garfinckel's and Woodward & Lothrop among its several hundred members, has launched an anti-shoplifting campaign -- credit card and check fraud were added this year -- every fall since 1970. Mayor Marion Barry, Police Chief Burtell Jefferson and the governors of Maryland and Virginia have enthusiastically endorsed the campaign. In supporting it, Barry cites the need to attract new businesses to the District.

Area merchants, concerned over the 15 percent increase in consumer theft this year over 1979, decided to include the two additional crimes and will spend a record $72,000 on the four-month campaign. According to Kolodny, the bureau gauges the impact of the campaign by the decline in arrests during the campaign period compared to the weeks preceding the kickoff, and in the number of calls and letters his office receives. He said arrests are down and letters are up.

Beginning their campaign in mid-September and ending it after Christmas -- the holiday shopping season when retailers most eagerly anticipate profits and fear the biggest losses from theft -- organizers say the publicity is aimed at discouraging the thrill-seeking amateur rather than the professional criminal.

"Whoever your customer is, that's your shoplifter," said Lewis Shealy, vice president of security for Woodward & Lothrop and chairman of the anti-crime campaign, who developed this year's theme. "We don't even keep any of that kind of [racial] data . . . It wouldn't be meaningful to do it."

Local retailers do collect data on age, sex, education, income and profession of apprehended shoplifters, and their reports indicate that 89 percent of all shoplifting is done by amateurs or first-time offenders. Thirty percent of all shoplifters are full-time homemakers who commit 55 percent of all shoplifting in food stores. More than 70 percent of shoplifters and fraudulent credit card users, and more than 85 percent of bad check writers are high school graduates. Most apprehended shoplifters, Shealy said, have the money to pay for what they took.

"They don't do it out of need; they're not hungry, they're not cold," said Shealy, although he said increases in theft do correspond to economic downturns. Shealy said, however, that people steal more out of frustration. "We noticed that during Watergate that there was an increase. The public had a bad attitude, they felt everybody's ripping them off," he said. But in "no way" does the average offender conform to the stereotype of the skinny black kid in sneakers. "You're more likely to be that white person in suburban areas," he added.

Nevertheless, a reporter's spot check of retail firms with branches in the District, Maryland and Virginia revealed that branches serving a more affluent clientele, or located in more affluent areas, had generally not posted the signs.

Shoppers at Britches, a fashionable and expensive men's clothing store which has contributed to the campaign, will not find signs in any of the stores. "It's not a part of our decor," said the assistant manager of the Springfield store, "and I don't think a poster in the window is very effective." Neither the downtown Connecticut Avenue store or the Georgetown branch had plans to use the signs either; their respective managers said the stores are targets for professionals who are undeterred by forceful public relations.

Dart Drug stores on Michigan Avenue NE and G Street NW, stores patronized largely by blacks, according to their managers, displayed the signs prominently near the cash registers or on the doors. An assistant manager for the Rosslyn store said that he had received his share of posters but hadn't put them up; the Falls Church customer service manager said she had heard of the campaign but had seen none of the signs.

A manager for T. H. Mandy's downtown L Street store, whose chain also contributed, said that Mandy's preferred its own signs, "but people don't read signs," he said.

Spokesmen for some of the more expensive clothing stores, noting that their merchandise is highly prized by younger shoplifters, said they would post their signs as the holidays approached. "Most certainly they're effective," said Vincent Zanetti, general manager for Lewis & Thomas Saltz menswear. "It's a reminder, especially to the young people who are doing it on dares. It reminds them that they can ruin their futures." w

Black store managers who were polled said they, like their white counterparts, did not find the signs offensive. They cited many of the same reasons. "Don't you think it's better than having [youngsters] locked up?" asked Mary Johnson, manager of the Michigan Avenue Dart Drug. "I've seen them in the store and I think they are effective, especially with teen-agers. You see them come in with kind of twisty looking eyes and they'll look up and see the sign and go on back out the door. Even a couple of customers said they were a good idea."

There is little evidence among blacks of a widespread reaction to the signs.

A reporter outside the G Street Dart Drug last week asked departing customers their reaction to the signs, and most said they hadn't noticed and had no opinion of the message. Dr. Collins said he was not surprised. "I've had patients who've gotten stopped in stores because they supposedly looked like a thief. It reinforces the negative self-image," he said. "[Blacks may say] 'Yes, we've got to tolerate this because we're stealing more from the man's stores.' That's the kind of simplistic racism we're burdened with. We believe in the truth of the assertion."

Retailers' support for the campaign continues to be high, especially in the face of last year's resounding losses. And the reactions of the offended may ebb as the signs fade into the urban scenery. Still, some black community leaders remain firmly convinced that the signs will do nothing to deter poor and desperate people from taking what they need.

"People don't think they're stealing if they really need something. They think they're liberating it," said Bob King, program director of the 14th Street Project Area Committee. "What are you going to do with a situation with 65 percent of households headed by a single parent, and the fashions are coming out galore and they see it on TV and they want it and the mother can't afford it?"

"If somebody's made the decision to steal, I don't think these little signs will do anything," added Jay Chunn, of the Howard School of Social Work. "I think the Board of Trade would do better by putting up a sign advertising jobs."