April 7th, 2007 05:05 EST
The FBI and Organized Retail Theft
These thieves waltz into a department store…fill up a cart with expensive medicines, DVDs, baby formula, or other high-cost items…then walk right out the door without paying for it by slipping past security or using other deceptive techniques.
It’s called organized retail theft, and it’s a $30 billion to $37 billion a year crime problem, according to industry estimates.
“The overall price tag is more than burglary, larceny, robbery, and auto theft combined,” says Supervisory Special Agent Brian J. Nadeau, program manager of the Organized Retail Theft Program at FBI Headquarters. “Theses aren’t shoplifters taking a pack of gum. These are professional thieves. This is their day job.”
These thieves—called “boosters” —can make good money for their efforts, Nadeau said. They typically are paid 30 cents on the dollar for stolen goods. In some cases, they haul off $5,000 to $10,000 worth of merchandise each time they leave a store. The same team might hit several stores in a day and the same store once a month. A really good professional thief can make between $100,000 and $200,000 a year.
Boosters waste no time. They get in and out stores quickly because they know what they want. In fact, they’re often given a shopping list by their “fences”—people who buy their goods. Then, they get out of Dodge fast. “They can be in the next jurisdiction or across state lines by the time local police arrive to take a report,” Nadeau says.
More on fences. Street-level fences typically buy from a couple different boosters, pay in cash or drugs, and sell the merchandise in their own discount stores, at flea markets, or through online auctions. Some sell to higher-level fences who repackage—or scrub—the goods and pawn them off on retailers at prices that undercut legitimate distributors. Ironically, some stolen merchandise can actually make its way back on to the shelves of the chain store where it was stolen, Nadeau says.
Besides the huge financial toll retail theft takes on the industry—which leads to higher consumer prices—there are safety issues, too. Some stolen products—including baby formula and medicine—have expiration dates that are altered before being resold. Some products may be stored incorrectly and go bad. In some cases, boosters approached in the store may even turn violent.
Tackling the problem. We’ve worked retail theft issues for years, in concert with industry and law enforcement partners. Now, a groundbreaking new database will help our collective efforts.
The database—called the Law Enforcement Retail Partnership Network, or LERPNet—is available to participating retailers and law enforcement through a secure Internet portal. It was developed in partnership with the Retail Industry Leaders Association and the National Retail Federation. To date, more than 32 retailers representing 46,000 stores have signed on.
The network will provide a uniform way of tracking retail theft, improve information sharing, and help tie rings to multiple crimes. It will also enable retailers and law enforcement to see if there are patterns in geographic areas and in types of merchandise taken or even if boosters prefer to hit at a particular time of day.
“Organized retail theft is a huge problem. Thankfully, we’ve got a huge network of partners to tackle it together,” Nadeau says.