Organized retail theft: A $30 billion-a-year industry and growing

WASHINGTON - If you're shopping in a store and have your eye on an iPad 2, a new Slap Watch or any other accoutrement, chances are thieves do, too.

"Organized retail crime," as police call it, has become big business. Last year, theft rings stole an estimated $30 billion worth of retail merchandise that wound up getting sold out of car trunks, online and even to distributors who relay the merchandise back to store shelves.

Shoppers end up bearing the financial brunt, because "it comes back to consumers in the form of higher prices," said Joseph LaRocca, the National Retail Federation's senior adviser of asset protection. Households fork over nearly $400 a year to offset retailers' losses, he said.

The thieves steal what they can sell quickly, targeting popular items such as smartphones and designer bags. But no product is beyond the scope of organized theft rings, law enforcement officials said.

"Electronics, clothes, cookware -- you name it, they take it all," said David Hill, a detective with the Montgomery County (Md.) Police Department and an authority on organized retail crime.

"These are very structured criminal enterprises that are involved in the international and interstate trafficking of stolen property," FBI special agent Eric Ives said.

LaRocca said every type of store has fallen victim to this booming industry and every state has suffered the effects.

In a 2011 survey of 125 theft-prevention executives, the retail federation found that almost all respondents -- 95 percent of them -- suffered losses from organized retail crime.

With conventional shoplifting, an individual might steal a few items for personal use.

"Organized retail crime is (at) the other extreme," LaRocca said, "where you have gangs of individuals, or what we call ‘boosters,' coming into the store, stealing or fraudulently obtaining thousands of dollars of merchandise at one time and then reselling that merchandise for a profit."

While the crime is more of a profession, according to Ives, "it requires no special skills or start-up costs."

Boosters target high-demand products, selling the stolen goods at a discounted price.

"Everything that's in a store, people can steal," said Carlos, who was convicted of organized retail crime five years ago in Maryland and whose real name is classified for security reasons.

Hill, the detective, has spent more than a decade investigating organized retail crime and speaking nationally about the issue. He said these heists usually involve at least three participants: one to distract employees, one to bag the merchandise and another, a "mule," to carry the goods from the store to the vehicle.

"Everyone has a specific job to do and everyone gets paid," Hill said.

More sophisticated rings use "booster bags" -- purses or bags lined with aluminum foil or duct tape to block electronic sensor tags on merchandise from setting off security alarms. Carlos said booster bags sell in New York for around $100.

But even thieves want to cut their expenses, Carlos said, noting that now "everybody makes their own bags."

Those who get caught have little to fear, law enforcement and retail officials said. Criminals can get off with a simple misdemeanor charge depending on their jurisdiction, criminal record, and the value of the theft.

"It's a low-risk, high-profit criminal industry," Ives said.

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