Organized crime blamed for nationwide scourge of shoplifting, smash-and-grab flash mobs

Rampant shoplifting and organized retail theft, often unchecked by local governments and allowed to grow into a multibillion-dollar industry, have major retailers turning to Washington for help.

Legislation to resolve the problem has yet to turn the tide of the shoplifting scourge.

Congress is considering ways to combat organized theft, which is eating into retailers’ bottom lines and causing headaches for shoppers, who increasingly find everyday items locked behind glass.

The problem is coast to coast.

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel recently announced a series of arrests in flash mob thefts at Lululemon and Ulta locations.

A security guard in Philadelphia was fatally stabbed and a second guard was injured by a man robbing a Macy’s last month. The suspected perpetrator had been arrested more than a dozen times on retail theft and other charges.

Target recently said it would close nine stores in four cities — New York, Seattle, San Francisco and Portland, Oregon — because of fear for employee and customer safety around organized theft. This fall, Walmart opened a “police workspace” at one of its Atlanta stores to deter crime.

The companies say it is far too easy for thieves to swipe “smart” devices for homes and other in-demand goods and sell them online.

“From our perspective, things are not really changing. We’ve seen [organized retail crime] cases continue to grow not only in volume and velocity but in size and scope, year over year,” Scott Glenn, vice president for asset protection at Home Depot, told The Washington Times.

Republican lawmakers say liberal elected leaders and prosecutors encourage lawlessness with lenient criminal justice policies.

“Large organizations of professional shoplifters or ‘boosters’ are exploiting soft-on-crime policies to ransack American businesses and carry out an unprecedented spike in retail crime,” Rep. August Pfluger, Texas Republican, said at a recent congressional hearing.

He cited the Retail Industry Leaders Association’s estimate that organized crime costs retailers $70 billion annually.

Getting reliable statistics can be difficult. The National Retail Federation retracted part of a recent report because of an analyst’s error, and some critics accuse corporations of exaggerating the problem to justify store closures.

Elected leaders are under pressure to take action. California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, responded to smash-and-grab thefts in 2021 by calling for stiffer prosecutions and more state funding to target the problem.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican presidential candidate, signed a bill last year that created second-degree and third-degree felony crimes for people who commit repeated thefts within a short period.

Former President Donald Trump raised eyebrows in October by saying shoplifters should be shot on the spot.

“We will immediately stop all of the pillaging and theft. Very simply: If you rob a store, you can fully expect to be shot as you are leaving that store,” Mr. Trump said in a speech to California Republicans.

Retailers are lobbying Congress to pass the Combating Organized Retail Crime Act, establishing the Organized Retail Crime Coordination Center through the Department of Homeland Security. The center would coordinate federal efforts, establish relationships with state and local law enforcement and set up a secure system to share data and spot trends.

Mr. Glenn described the proposed center as a “one-stop shop” for combating organized retail theft, especially for thieves who cross state lines.

“We need a task force that dedicates some agency within the government to take point on this issue,” he said.

Shocking footage of teenagers or others looting stores en masse often makes evening newscasts. A group of looters ransacked a Chanel store in downtown Washington several days before Christmas and made off with armloads of luxury handbags. It was the second time the store was hit last year.

A steady drip of quieter, organized theft takes a bite out of retailers.

Organized fencers enlist what are known as boosters to mob stores and slip items into their bags or clothing. The thieves get a cut of the proceeds once they turn over the products to gangs that sell the goods online.

“A lot of times, these folks come from some vulnerable populations. They may be drug-addicted. They may be unhoused,” Mr. Glenn said. “Certainly, the fences and the higher-ups within these organized groups prey on those types of populations and use them for that piece of it.”

Experts say the problem is fueled by the ease of setting up fly-by-night operations online to move goods.

The criminal rings are “driven by greed and opportunity, not so much location and geographic region,” Michael Krol, a special agent in charge for Homeland Security Department investigations in New England, told the House Homeland Security subcommittee on counterterrorism, law enforcement and intelligence.

Mr. Pfluger, the subcommittee chairman, said the problem is bedeviling big-box stores and mom-and-pop shops alike. Stores have resorted to locking up items or, in some instances, displaying photos of stowed-away items instead of putting the merchandise on shelves. He said some stores use smart shopping carts that lock at the exits to prevent thieves from leaving with stolen merchandise.

At Home Depot, Mr. Glenn said, thieves tend to target copper wiring and Wi-Fi-enabled “smart” devices such as dimmer switches that connect to the internet. The products are sent to centralized locations, cleaned up so they don’t look stolen and posted for sale on internet marketplaces.

“Pretty much all of the online resellers are vulnerable to this, and some do a better job of policing it than others,” Mr. Glenn said. “But at the end of the day, you know, the volume is such that it’s very hard to keep up with.”

Abby Jagoda, vice president of public policy for the International Council of Shopping Centers, said organized syndicates steal in-demand items such as designer handbags and name-brand laundry detergent.

“When these goods are resold using an online marketplace or other means of sale, most consumers are unaware that they’re purchasing stolen goods,” she said.

President Biden last year signed the INFORM Consumers Act, which requires Amazon and other online marketplaces to gather contact information, tax IDs and other records from high-volume sellers. The hope is to inject enough sunlight into the selling process to ensure online markets do not unwittingly facilitate gangs that fence stolen goods.

Retailers called it a good first step.

The extent of retail theft has been misstated at times, making it hard for policymakers to get a complete snapshot of the problem.

Walgreens told investors last year that the situation was improving and it might have “cried too much” after blaming a series of San Francisco store closings on organized theft.

Still, lawmakers in both parties agree the problem is real and damaging.

Rep. Dina Titus, Nevada Democrat, said she once saw a person stealing fake eyelashes from a Walgreens, though a clerk said the store ordered employees not to intervene for safety reasons.

“Eyelashes are not power tools, I’ll give you that, but look around. There’s certainly a market for it. And they don’t sell it directly; they sell it to a swap meet or something,” she said.

David Johnston, vice president of asset protection and retail operations for the National Retail Federation, told Congress that thieves tend to target areas with higher felony thresholds, low penalties for theft or places lacking police resources. He, too, is pushing Congress to create a federal entity focused on organized retail crime.

“With federal coordination, collaboration, support and resources, we can bring the fight to these organized groups across our nation,” he said.

Source: WT