Organized retail crime: Washington law enforcement puts heat on shoplifters

Federal Way police are part of a growing statewide effort to reduce shoplifting by secret crime rings.

Though difficult to quantify, the National Retail Federation estimates that annual losses from organized retail crime are as high as $30 billion. More than 95 percent of retailers are victims.

Criminal enterprises hire “boosters” to steal everything from baby formula, diapers, Oil of Olay, shampoo, razors, high-end clothing, electronics, steaks and seafood, just to name a few. The loot is sold for pennies on the dollar — with the costs of theft ultimately absorbed by consumers.

Organized retail crime centers on common consumables such as baby and hygiene products. The stolen items are sold from car trunks or in backyards, flea markets, swap meets and mom-and-pop shops. Auction websites such as eBay are havens for stolen merchandise. Other criminals return stolen goods to retailers for a fraudulent refund, or perhaps buy the stuff with stolen credit cards. A recent report from the Washington Retail Association involved a King County couple who recruited a few dozen drug addicts to steal from stores, with the items either resold or shipped to Cambodia.

A handful of state laws apply to organized retail crime that specify the value and frequency of theft. Many of these thieves target multiple retail outlets, often in the same day, along the Interstate 5 corridor.

In Washington, law enforcement agencies and prosecutors take organized retail crime seriously.

The estimated annual loss to retailers is $77 million, according to Tacoma police officer Scott Stanley. He started the Washington State Organized Retail Crime Alliance in November 2010 while looking into theft reports at the Tacoma Mall. Both police and retailers have since gotten involved. Today, the alliance’s database boasts 402 registered users from 81 cities in nine states (several retailers have headquarters located outside Washington).

Since the launch of the alliance website in May, there have been five different arrests related to organized retail crime, Stanley said. The website alerts retailers through both email and smartphones to potential thieves. Stanley described a recent incident in which a suspect was seen stealing in Macy’s at Tacoma Mall. After Macy’s issued an alert regarding the thief, a loss prevention officer at nearby Nordstrom spotted the suspect. Police were able to make an arrest.

“Here in our region, grocery stores are getting destroyed by steak thieves” who sell the loot to mom and pop grocery and convenience stores, Stanley said. “The number one most stolen item from mall stores is Levi’s jeans.”

For several years, Federal Way officer Gordon Morikawa regularly busted shoplifters at Top Food and Drug. A former manager would call Morikawa’s cellphone whenever a shoplifter was on the premises. Most suspects swiped candy, food or beer, he said. Morikawa would also encounter so-called professional shoplifters who likely delivered their bounty to a middleman known as a fence. These middlemen pay pennies on the dollar for the stolen merchandise, then sell it. The stolen items commonly included household supplies and hygiene products. Thieves also target grocery stores for steaks, then sell the meat to restaurants.

“We had a guy dumpster diving in Top Foods, retrieving all this meat that had been thrown out. ... God only knows where it ended up,” Morikawa recalled. “There’s a market for it. We have to surmise that he’s selling it somewhere.”

Tenants at The Commons Mall in Federal Way — including major retailers like Sears, Macy’s and Target — report fewer losses due to organized thievery, said Federal Way police officer Chris Norman. He credits the constant police presence as well as building relationships with loss prevention officers at the mall’s stores.

The police department has a contract with the mall for the additional officers, said Norman, adding that arrests and investigations for theft have increased. Law enforcement in the region also communicate with one another on potential tips. While scrolling through messages on his phone, Norman finds a bulletin for a 30-year-old woman trying to steal $300 in shampoo and hair products from a Safeway store in Edmonds. He believes most thieves seek money to buy drugs like heroin or oxycontin.

This type of police presence and awareness is appreciated by local retailers.

“The moment people out here see a police officer, they leave. They don’t want to play games,” said the manager for another retail store at The Commons Mall in Federal Way, who asked that his name not be used due to corporate rules for speaking to the media. The manager said his store’s losses last year were the lowest he has seen. He credits police presence at the mall, along with active customer service and trustworthy employees, for being a solid deterrent.

“The police have a great presence,” the manager said. “That helps us out.”


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