Thefts by organized crime rings rising, stores say

May 31, 2007|By Cox News Service

ATLANTA -- Organized retail theft is on the rise, according to an industry survey.

More than three-quarters of retailers said their stores had been hit by crime rings in the past year, the National Retail Federation said yesterday. The federation surveyed 99 senior loss-prevention executives across all sectors of the retail industry.

The trade group also found that 71 percent of retail respondents saw a boost in organized theft, up significantly from a similar survey in 2006, when 48 percent of retailers experienced an uptick.

Unlike shoplifters who steal products for personal use, organized rings steal large quantities of popular products such as baby formula or power tools, then sell it online or at flea markets or pawnshops.

The people clearing the shelves usually are just one link in a larger criminal chain that includes lookouts, getaway cars and a mastermind who orchestrates the scheme. One method involves putting fake price codes on goods.

"They pick things that are easily resold, with high demand and a high price point," said Joseph LaRocca, vice president of loss prevention for the National Retail Federation. "Just like a retailer wants to carry the hottest items, these criminals want to steal the hottest items."

Some of the most targeted products include Crest Whitestrips, Duracell batteries, Gillette razor blades, iPods, Rogaine, Sudafed and other over-the-counter medications, LaRocca said.

Organized crime is nothing new, but retailers have only recently begun to wake up to it as a separate problem from shoplifting, which is often dealt with as petty theft at the local store level.

"A few years ago, organized retail crime wasn't a well-known problem because it's a crime that hasn't really been punished," said Ellen Davis, a spokeswoman for the retailers. "It's still new enough that many retailers haven't known what to look for. They may have thought that all this time, it was a dozen individual shoplifters stealing the Claritin or the baby formula. Now they're realizing it may have been a single ring."

In addition, the rise of the Internet has paved the way for a lucrative business in stolen goods.

While thieves may only get 30 percent of retail value if they try to sell merchandise at pawnshops, they typically get 70 percent of retail value on eBay and other online auction sites, according to LaRocca.

Retailers are fighting back, though, according to the survey.

More than 61 percent of respondents said they had identified or recovered stolen merchandise, up from 59 percent in last year's survey. And 52 percent said they were beefing up resources to address organized crime, such as in-house investigative units that troll Web sites for stolen goods.

More than 40 retailers are participating in a Web-based tracking system known as the Law Enforcement Retail Partnership Network, a new project designed to help retailers and police crack down on illegal activity.

The database, which functions somewhat like an alert system, allows users to share details about theft incidents in an effort to identify which stores and merchandise are being targeted.

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