Tide detergent: Hottest item on the black market?

Common items that are targeted by organized retail theft rings include detergent, diapers, baby formula, disposable razors and hygiene products. - Andy Hobbs, Federal Way Mirror
Common items that are targeted by organized retail theft rings include detergent, diapers, baby formula, disposable razors and hygiene products.
— image credit: Andy Hobbs, Federal Way Mirror

A slew of recent media reports suggest that Tide laundry detergent is the hottest commodity in the nation's black market.

The name-brand detergent is commonly stolen by organized retail theft rings. These operations, known as "fences," pay pennies on the dollar for stolen goods, then re-sell them at a profit. Thieves target consumable items like detergent, diapers, baby formula, razors, batteries, beauty products and meat because of their consistent demand.

Organized retail theft results in multimillion-dollar losses for businesses, with the cost ultimately passed on to consumers. 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.

One explanation for Tide's popularity among thieves is that they prefer to steal name-brand stuff. Thieves, also known as boosters, usually work from shopping lists provided by the fence operations.

"Tide has been on the top of wish lists for boosters for some time," said Tacoma police officer Scott Stanley, who started the Washington State Organized Retail Crime Alliance (WSORCA) in November 2010. "They steal what they're asked to steal."

Stanley said this conclusion is based on feedback from retailers, who voluntarily ask specific questions of shoplifting suspects in an effort to learn more about their motivations. He has not observed any specific security efforts aimed at Tide — no extra sensors, no locked display cases.

"Not one retailer has told me they're doing anything special to stop Tide theft," Stanley said.

The WSORCA reports that organized retail theft causes an estimated annual loss to retailers of $77 million in Washington state. The problem became bad enough that state statutes were passed and revised to specifically to address this type of crime.

"It really is a major, major problem. These retailers are getting raped, and so are the taxpayers," said Federal Way police officer Chris Norman. He credits the department's increased presence at Federal Way's retail hotspots in fighting theft at the local level.

While searching the Washington State Organized Retail Crime Alliance database, Norman found 46 incidents reported in the region between April 2011 and February 2012 specifically related to the theft of Tide detergent. No such incidents have been reported in Federal Way through the database, he said. However, Norman is not surprised that thieves target Tide — which can cost between $10 and $20 a bottle in stores.

"It's expensive and it's easy to sell. There's a lot of demand for it," Norman said, noting an obvious consequence to the public: "Whatever sales tax we would have collected on that Tide, we're not collecting."

Some King County detectives specialize in finding these elusive criminals who target chain stores like QFC, Safeway, Albertsons, Fred Meyer and Home Depot.

In May 2011, King County prosecutors filed charges against two unrelated organized retail theft rings that recruited shoplifters to steal nearly $6.1 million worth of goods across the region. Two undercover investigations tracked stolen merchandise from commonly victimized chain stores.

According to the investigation, Tide detergent was a commonly stolen item that was often shipped for sale overseas.

In one of the cases, a couple from White Center is believed to have recruited more than 30 "boosters," mostly drug addicts seeking cash for heroin and oxycontin. The boosters would steal hundreds of dollars worth of items at a time. The couple behind the theft ring would resell the items in their Samway Market in White Center, or send the goods to a higher-level fence for shipment to Cambodia.

Read more

Click here to read the investigation report for the King County organized retail theft ring mentioned above.

For more insight on the underground economy, click here.


This story contains information from past Federal Way Mirror reports.


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