'Tis the season for shoplifting.

Contributing to the most costly consumer crime in the Washington area, thieves swiped an estimated $464 million in goods from area stores during the year ending July 31, according to the Greater Washington Board of Trade-Retail Bureau.

"It's mind-boggling that that much merchandise goes off the shelves," said Michael Morel, Sears regional retail security manager. "But it does."

The trade bureau emphasizes that stores are not the only victims. To make up for the losses attributed to what some police call surburbia's most prevalent crime, consumers pay at least $300 each annually through price increases.

"Every time that cash register rings, you're paying a few pennies for shoplifting," said Garry R. Curtis, manager of the trade bureau. "When you're talking $460 million, that's obviously more than a significant problem."

The problem, which peaks during the holiday season, has become pronounced enough to prompt letters of concern from state and local political leaders.

"We wouldn't let bank robbers get away with stealing millions of dollars," Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer wrote in a September letter to the trade bureau. "We can't let shoplifters get away with it."

Each day a covert, sometimes high-tech, war is being waged between crafty thieves and roughly 2,100 security personnel stationed in area stores. In the arsenal employed by security teams are fake displays housed with detectives, clothes laced with electronic alarms and closed-circuit televisions.

According to law enforcement officials and security personnel, shoplifters can be categorized in two general groups, amateurs stealing for personal reasons and professionals seeking a profit.

The Prince William County Police Department has stationed a number of officers at Potomac Mills mall, where they confiscate from thieves about $2,000 worth of merchandise per week, or more than $100,000 per year. Also, officers have seized tools of the shoplifting trade such as chain cutters and razor blades used to cut merchandise from racks.

Still, authorities say they are catching far fewer than half the shoplifters. Last year, county police responded to 1,014 complaints at the mall, most of which were shoplifting, said Cpl. C.J. Mouser.

"We are talking about the professional 'booster' who may steal $2,000 of goods every day," said Capt. Robert DelCore, who oversees the Fairfax County Police Department's Christmas antitheft team, which works Springfield Mall.

"They {professionals} are the number one cause of shoplifting" in Hecht's stores, said Robert Oberosler, regional director of security for the chain. "They will spend all day in a mall. We have stopped people in a car with $10,000 worth of merchandise."

It is not uncommon to arrest shoplifters who have lists of what they intend to steal, police say. Over the years, fencing networks throughout the region have developed to sell the goods and have made "stealing to order" the norm.

The business is lucrative, with boosters receiving from 30 to 35 percent of the sticker price on their stolen merchandise, said one District police officer. Burglars typically receive about 15 percent of the worth of the stolen items.

Many boosters steal or "spank" to support drug habits, police said. Mouser has advised his men not to reach haphazardly into purses or bags for fear of being scratched by contaminated needles.

Increasingly, police are finding boosters who are convicted felons with multiple arrest records. Prince William County police recently arrested a man on a shoplifting charge who was wanted for homicide in the District.

Police officials say the boosters have evolved into a counterculture of thieves who work the entire region and who maintain an informal network of cooperation, often exchanging information about store security personnel.

Police and members of the trade bureau say they have begun informal discussion of a regional information sharing system that would help curb professional boosting.

But while the police worry about boosters, the biggest group of shoplifters is everyday customers. Trade bureau manager Curtis estimates that 75 to 80 percent of the merchandise stolen is taken by amateur thieves. "It could be anybody," said S.W. Wills of the Montgomery County Police Department.

"Some are housewives with a handful of credit cards and cash in hand. {They} will buy $20 worth of cosmetics and steal $10 worth of gloves," said Morel of Sears. "Some teen-agers say they are doing it to fight the system or because of peer pressure."

The thief of opportunity is what causes his biggest headaches, said Jerry Wilson, vice president of security for the area's Peoples drugstores. "You find otherwise honest people stealing," Wilson said. "They say things like, 'The lines are too slow,' or that 'the store is making too much money on goods.' " Others steal out of need, he said.

Area law enforcement officials have become more active in seeking prosecutions, and the trade bureau has been conducting a media campaign to change attitudes about shoplifting. They suggest the problem may be partly psychological.

"By using the word 'shoplifting' it somehow diminishes the crime," Curtis said. "It makes you think of fraternity dares. People are unable to associate the seriousness of the crime and the consequences."

Some people just do not think of it as wrong, said Lt. D.J. Kerr of the District police.

Added Morel: There are those who say, "I don't know why I did it."