Organized Crime and Retail Theft: Facts and Myths
Small, loosely connected gangs illustrate the challenge of stopping organized retail theft
By Michael Fitzgerald
September 28, 2009 — CSO —
When police caught a thief trying to steal $4,500 in goods from a Publix supermarket near Lakeland, Fla., the local sheriff didn't treat it like just another shoplifting case. He assigned a detective to look into it.
As part of Operation Beauty Stop, a seven-month investigation, a detective found a ring of thieves hitting stores throughout central Florida. They stole from Publix, Sweetbay, Target, Wal-Mart and other stores. They could hit 15 stores in a day, stealing roughly $3,500 of goods per store. Goods were resold through Lola's Discount Warehouse, which operated on eBay and at area flea markets. When officers moved in and arrested 18 people, they estimated that over a five-year period, between $60 million and $100 million worth of goods were stolen. "It's staggering," says Grady Judd, Polk County's Sheriff.
And well organized. The Polk County ring used to fill shopping lists for Lola's owner, Theresa Parrish. Another ring, busted by Polk County Sheriff's officers in March, had operated for seven years, recruiting illegal aliens to steal baby formula. It had a facility in North Carolina where it could relabel cans. That ring probably stole $17 million worth of baby formula over seven years.
The U.S. national motto is often "shop 'til you drop." In times like these, the corollary becomes "steal it and deal it." In retail stores, crime rings have found what Sheriff Judd calls a "soft underbelly" of American law enforcement. He says even retailers often think of retail theft as "a minor event," he says. The penalties for shoplifting are low, retailers have little interest in making it harder for legitimate consumers to get at goods. Meanwhile, bloodless crimes often don't make pulses race, even in the 28 percent of cases where traditional organized crime seems to be involved.
Perhaps that's why retail criminal rings offer a melting-pot view of America. "It's an unbiased crime," says Casey Chroust, senior vice president of retail operations at the Retail Industry Leaders' Association (RILA). It happens everywhere: urban stores and rural retailers, mom-and-pop shops and Wal-mart. A National Retail Federation survey found that 92 percent of retailers said they'd been the victims of organized retail theft in 2008. Organized retail thieves swiped between $15 billion and $30 billion in goods a year. Their favorite targets: razor blades, infant formula, teeth whiteners, Oil of Olay, diabetes-related supplies, branded apparel, consumer electronics and Blu-ray discs.