New threat to retail - organized crime

What thieves go after continues to change

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BALTIMORE — They looked like any other shoppers browsing iPads and Apple Watches at the Apple Store in Towson, Md.

But a security guard saw something amiss in the behavior of the four men in the store at Towson Town Center. Two of them — one wearing a blue jogging outfit, the other dressed in black pants and shirt — were acting as lookouts, blocking the views of sales associates. The other two were scooping up display items and slipping them into their vests.

Then they all headed for the exit.

They didn’t get far. They were stopped by security guards, and police arrested three. The men, all from the Eastern European nation of Georgia, had driven down from New York in a minivan, police and prosecutors said. Inside the van, they reported, officers found dozens of Apple devices.

The men were accused of stealing more than $1,500 worth of iPods and software. They were convicted last year of theft.

For retailers, simple shoplifting is an unavoidable cost of doing business. But now, industry analysts and law enforcement officials said, a greater threat is emerging — theft and fraud by highly organized criminal rings.

The high-stakes enterprises often operate across state lines. They might employ teams of “boosters” — often the homeless or the drug addicted — who go into stores to steal everything from laundry detergent and baby formula to designer clothes and diamonds. They fence stolen goods at pawnshops, kiosks, vans on the street and, increasingly, online auction sites.

And they’re becoming more brazen and more dangerous, analysts said, in some cases attacking store employees and even shoppers.

“We probably see organized retail crime incidents across our stores every day,” said Jim Cosseboom, manager of investigations and corporate asset protection for the supermarket operator Ahold USA, parent company of Giant, Food Lion and other chains.

“What they’re targeting is always shifting,” he said, from detergent to razor blades to seafood. But it’s anything “that can easily be sold for quick cash. ... . It’s a significant concern.”

Organized theft has surpassed internal theft to become the leading cause of retail loss, said Robert Moraca, vice president of loss prevention for the National Retail Federation. Analysts said the increase has been fueled by the opioid epidemic and by the growing understanding among criminals that theft can be quick, easy and profitable.

In a well choreographed assault, Moraca said, thieves can clear shelves of thousands of dollars’ worth of goods in minutes.

“And that’s happening in multiples,” he said. “It’s not just a group that gets together and wants to steal. These are groups that already exist for criminal purposes” — such as drug trafficking and human trafficking.

“These are hardened criminals, and they get into organized retail crime because it’s extremely profitable.”

The National Retail Federation reported that organized crime cost retailers $30 billion last year. The group recently surveyed retailers on organized crime. All the respondents said they had been victimized in the previous year.

They said they were spending an average of $545,000 on employees dedicated to fighting organized crime, an all-time high.

Coordinated efforts between retailers, store security, law enforcement and prosecutors have helped, analysts said, as has the emergence of associations focused on fighting organized retail crime.

The Mid-Atlantic Organized Retail Crime Alliance, for example, which includes Maryland, brings together retailers, law enforcement, security and loss prevention officials to share data and intelligence on organized theft, robberies, counterfeiting, check and credit card fraud and other scams.

“We need to think about capturing these guys at the lower level to stop these cycles,” said association President Cailey Locklair Tolle. “People will say, ‘People are stealing because they are hungry. “That does happen. But we’d like to draw a line between non professional theft and (individual) theft.”

At Home Depot, employees are told to leave suspected shoplifters to trained security workers. A spokesman for the home improvement retailer said shoppers never should try to chase or stop a suspected thief.

“The individuals who are doing the shoplifting have become extremely dangerous, much more than anyone would think of a petty shoplifter doing,” spokesman Stephen Holmes said. Assaults on security guards and asset protection personnel have become common, he added.

“It can be the slightest thing that triggers that act of violence,” he said. “I just don’t think the average person realizes what’s going on.”

Federal prosecutors get involved in cases when criminals operate across state lines — hitting retailers at multiple locations — or when they commit federal crimes such as identity fraud.

Flipping schemes also can trigger federal involvement. One or more people will steal from one retailer, then exchange the goods at a different retailer. Because they don’t have a receipt, they ask for a merchandise exchange.

“Now they leave the store with merchandise and a receipt,” said Tamera L. Fine, chief of the asset forfeiture and money laundering group in the U.S. State’s Attorney’s Office in Baltimore.

They can take the merchandise and receipt to another of the retailer’s locations, often in another state, for a return that’s credited to a debit card.

“We see people who over a period of a year may have charges to high-end retailers, Macy’s or Victoria’s Secret or Nieman’s ... and they have returns of $65,000,” she said.

Criminals research return policies carefully, Fine said, and they often elude police by using fake IDs. It can be difficult to prove that returned merchandise was stolen in the first place.

“Shoplifting is something that businesses have been able to deal with and deal with it in the course of business,” Ahold USA’s Cosseboom said. “But organized retail crime is having a deeper impact. It’s a larger criminal enterprise.”

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