Stores bat­tle theft rings

Or­ga­nized re­tail crime be­comes big busi­ness and big prob­lem

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By Lor­raine Mirabella

They looked like any other shop­pers brows­ing iPads and Ap­ple Watches at the Ap­ple Store in Tow­son.

But a se­cu­rity guard saw some­thing amiss in the be­hav­ior of the four men in the store at Tow­son Town Cen­ter. Two of them — one wear­ing a blue jog­ging out­fit, the other dressed in black pants and shirt — were act­ing as look­outs, block­ing the views of sales as­so­ciates. The other two were scoop­ing up dis­play items and slip­ping them into their vests. Then they all headed for the exit.

They didn’t get far. They were stopped by se­cu­rity guards, and po­lice ar­rested three. The men, all from the East­ern Euro­pean na­tion of Ge­or­gia, had driven down from New York in a mini­van, po­lice and prose­cu­tors say. In­side, they say, of­fi­cers found dozens of Ap­ple de­vices.

The men were ac­cused of steal­ing more than $1,500 worth of iPods and soft­ware. They were con­victed last year of theft.

For re­tail­ers, sim­ple shoplift­ing is an un­avoid­able cost of do­ing busi­ness. But now, in­dus­try an­a­lysts and law en­force­ment of­fi­cials say, a greater threat is emerg­ing: theft and fraud by highly or­ga­nized crimi-

nal rings.

The high-stakes en­ter­prises of­ten op­er­ate across state lines. They might em­ploy teams of “boost­ers” — of­ten the home­less or the drug ad­dicted — who go into stores to steal ev­ery­thing from laun­dry de­ter­gent and baby for­mula to de­signer clothes and di­a­monds. They fence stolen goods at pawn shops, kiosks, vans on the street and, in­creas­ingly, on­line auc­tion sites.

They’re be­com­ing more brazen and more dan­ger­ous, an­a­lysts say, in some cases at­tack­ing em­ploy­ees and even shop­pers.

“We prob­a­bly see or­ga­nized re­tail crime in­ci­dents across our stores ev­ery day,” said Jim Cosse­boom, man­ager of in­ves­ti­ga­tions and cor­po­rate as­set pro­tec­tion for the su­per­mar­ket op­er­a­tor Ahold USA, par­ent com­pany of Giant, Food Lion and other chains.

“What they’re tar­get­ing is al­ways shift­ing,” he says, from de­ter­gent to ra­zor blades to seafood. But it’s any­thing “that can eas­ily be sold for quick cash. … “It’s a sig­nif­i­cant con­cern.” Or­ga­nized theft has sur­passed in­ter­nal theft to be­come the lead­ing cause of re­tail loss, said Robert Mo­raca, vice pres­i­dent of loss pre­ven­tion for the Na­tional Re­tail Fed­er­a­tion. An­a­lysts say the in­crease has been fu­eled by the opi­oid epi­demic and by the grow­ing un­der­stand­ing among crim­i­nals that theft can be quick, easy and prof­itable.

In a well-chore­ographed as­sault, Mo­raca says, thieves can clear shelves of thou­sands of dol­lars’ worth of goods in min­utes.

“And that’s hap­pen­ing in mul­ti­ples,” he says. “It’s not just a group that gets to­gether and wants to steal. These are groups that al­ready ex­ist for crim­i­nal pur­poses,” such as drug traf­fick­ing and hu­man traf­fick­ing.

“These are hard­ened crim­i­nals, and they get into or­ga­nized re­tail crime be­cause it’s ex­tremely prof­itable.”

In­di­vid­ual re­tail­ers con­tacted by The Sun were re­luc­tant to dis­cuss de­tails. But the Na­tional Re­tail Fed­er­a­tion re­ported that or­ga­nized crime cost re­tail­ers $30 bil­lion last year. The group re­cently sur­veyed re­tail­ers on or­ga­nized crime; all of the re­spon­dents said they had been vic­tim­ized in the pre­vi­ous year. They said they were spend­ing an av­er­age of $545,000 on em­ploy­ees ded­i­cated to fight­ing or­ga­nized crime, an all-time high.

Co­or­di­nated ef­forts be­tween re­tail­ers, store se­cu­rity, law en­force­ment and prose­cu­tors have helped, an­a­lysts say, as has the emer­gence of as­so­ci­a­tions fo­cused on fight­ing or­ga­nized re­tail crime. The MidAt­lantic Or­ga­nized Re­tail Crime Al­liance, which in­cludes Mary­land, brings to­gether re­tail­ers, law en­force­ment, se­cu­rity and loss pre­ven­tion of­fi­cials to share data and in­tel­li­gence on or­ga­nized theft, rob­beries, coun­ter­feit­ing, check and credit card fraud and other scams.

Thirty-four states have en­acted laws against or­ga­nized re­tail crime. Mary­land has not. The Mary­land Re­tail­ers As­so­ci­a­tion wants leg­is­la­tion that would dis­tin­guish be­tween or­ga­nized re­tail theft and other types of theft.

“Be­ing on the I-95 cor­ri­dor, we are par­tic­u­larly sus­cep­ti­ble to or­ga­nized re­tail crime,” as­so­ci­a­tion Pres­i­dent Cai­ley Lock­lair Tolle says. “Shoplift­ing in Mary­land, both the in­stances of theft and the dol­lar amount that’s stolen ev­ery year, has steadily been on the rise, and part of it does have to do with or­ga­nized re­tail crime.”

The group is con­cerned that the in­crease in the state thresh­old for felony theft from $1,000 to $1,500 last year will en­cour­age more or­ga­nized rings to op­er­ate in Mary­land. The Gov­er­nor’s Of­fice of Crime Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion looked at theft clas­si­fi­ca­tions last year and rec­om­mended that law­mak­ers be­gin to as­sess the im­pact of or­ga­nized re­tail crime by de­vel­op­ing a def­i­ni­tion of the ac­tiv­ity to in­clude in Mary­land Uni­form Crime Re­ports.

The re­tail­ers group plans an in­for­mal meet­ing Mon­day in An­napo­lis with mem­bers of the Mary­land State’s At­tor­ney’s As­so­ci­a­tion, law en­force­ment, loss pre­ven­tion of­fi­cials and law­mak­ers to start hash­ing out so­lu­tions. Cur­rent theft laws, Tolle ar­gues, fail to ad­dress the unique na­ture of or­ga­nized crime, with high-level crim­i­nals direct­ing lower-level offenders to steal, steal­ing hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars worth of goods and of­ten op­er­at­ing across county lines.

“We need to think about cap­tur­ing these guys at the lower level to stop these cy­cles,” Tolle said. “Peo­ple will say, ‘Peo­ple are steal­ing be­cause they are hun­gry. “That does hap­pen. But we’d like to draw a line be­tween pro­fes­sional theft and [in­di­vid­ual] theft.”

At Home De­pot, em­ploy­ees are told to leave sus­pected shoplifters to trained se­cu­rity work­ers. A spokesman for the home im­prove­ment re­tailer says shop­pers never should try to chase or stop a sus­pected thief.

“The in­di­vid­u­als who are do­ing the shoplift­ing have be­come ex­tremely dan­ger­ous, much more than any­one would think of a petty shoplifter do­ing,” spokesman Stephen Holmes says. He says as­saults on se­cu­rity guards and as­set pro­tec­tion per­son­nel have be­come com­mon.

“It can be the slight­est thing that trig­gers that act of vi­o­lence,” he says. “I just don’t think the av­er­age per­son re­al­izes what’s go­ing on.”

Twenty-two peo­ple were charged last month in an al­leged na­tional ring ac­cused of steal­ing $20 mil­lion worth of goods from malls across the coun­try over a decade, in­clud­ing at least one store in Mary­land.

Bran­don Ramirez Salas, a 22-year-old from Mex­ico, and oth­ers are ac­cused of try­ing to steal mer­chan­dise from the Hol­lis­ter Co. store in Fred­er­ick’s Fran­cis Scott Key Mall in October 2015. They planned to de­liver the mer­chan­dise to an­other de­fen­dant in San Diego, prose­cu­tors said in an in­dict­ment.

Prose­cu­tors say the de­fen­dants, all from the San Diego area, formed crews of thieves who stole from stores through­out the United States and trans­ported the goods for sale in Mex­ico.

Team lead­ers would scout stores and use cell­phones and hand sig­nals to di­rect other team mem­bers, prose­cu­tors say. “Mules” would take mer­chan­dise from stores in “booster bags” — shop­ping bags with metal­lic lin­ings de­signed to de­flect sen­sors, prose­cu­tors say. “Block­ers” would pre­vent em­ploy­ees from see­ing the theft by dis­tract­ing them, us­ing cloth­ing to ob­struct their view or phys­i­cally re­strain­ing them, prose­cu­tors say.

At one sus­pect’s San Diego area home, prose­cu­tors say, in­ves­ti­ga­tors found trash bags of new cloth­ing, with mer­chan­dise tags and se­cu­rity de­vices still at­tached, from Vic­to­ria’s Se­cret, Hol­lis­ter, Guess, Ex­press, Abercrombie and Fitch and other stores, and brands such as Calvin Klein, Hur­ley, Ar­mani, Adi­das, Ken­neth Cole and Puma.

Near the cloth­ing, prose­cu­tors say, in­ves­ti­ga­tors found piles of new Louis Vuit­ton shoes.

Fed­eral prose­cu­tors get in­volved in cases when crim­i­nals op­er­ate across state lines or when they com­mit fed­eral crimes such as iden­tity fraud.

Flip­ping schemes can also trig­ger fed­eral in­volve­ment. One or more peo­ple will steal from one re­tailer, then ex­change the goods at a dif­fer­ent re­tailer. Be­cause they don’t have a re­ceipt, they ask for a mer­chan­dise ex­change.

“Now they leave the store with mer­chan­dise and a re­ceipt,” said Tam­era L. Fine, chief of the as­set for­fei­ture and money laun­der­ing group in the U.S. at­tor­ney’s of­fice in Bal­ti­more. They can take the mer­chan­dise and re­ceipt to an­other of the re­tailer’s lo­ca­tions, of­ten in an­other state, for a re­turn that’s cred­ited to a debit card.

“We see peo­ple who over a pe­riod of a year may have charges to high-end re­tail­ers, Macy’s or Vic­to­ria’s Se­cret or Neiman’s … and they have re­turns of $65,000,” she said.

Crim­i­nals re­search re­turn poli­cies care­fully, Fine said, and they of­ten elude po­lice by us­ing fake IDs.

“We see this ac­tiv­ity all up and down the I-95 cor­ri­dor,” she said. “We catch a frac­tion of this.”

A mother and daugh­ter were charged re­cently with lead­ing an or­ga­nized re­tail theft ring that tar­geted JCPen­ney stores in Mary­land and five other states.

Caro­line Britt, 47, and her daugh­ter, Bre­anna Britt, 23, both of Irv­ing­ton, N.J., were ac­cused of shoplift­ing ex­pen­sive cos­met­ics from Ulta and re­turn­ing the prod­ucts to JCPen­ney stores, net­ting about $107,000 over two years.

Caro­line Britt pleaded guilty in New Jer­sey Su­pe­rior Court in Septem­ber to a charge of sec­ond-de­gree con­spir­acy. She was ad­mit­ted to New Jer­sey’s drug court pro­gram and is sched­uled to be sen­tenced.

Bre­anna Britt pleaded guilty to third­de­gree shoplift­ing and agreed to co­op­er­ate in the pros­e­cu­tion of her mother. Her sen­tenc­ing is sched­uled for Nov. 17.

In the Tow­son Ap­ple Store case, at least one sus­pect had been flagged by the re­tailer as re­spon­si­ble for mul­ti­ple thefts from sev­eral stores in the re­gion over sev­eral months, po­lice said. Po­lice said the se­cu­rity guard rec­og­nized the four men from a BOLO — a Be On the Look Out mes­sage.

The case was in­ves­ti­gated by the Bal­ti­more County po­lice or­ga­nized re­tail crime team, which works to find and tar­get rings that op­er­ate in the county by re­view­ing theft re­ports and an­a­lyz­ing trends.

More of that kind of at­ten­tion is needed, re­tail­ers say.

“Shoplift­ing is some­thing that busi­nesses have been able to deal with and deal with it in the course of busi­ness,” said Cosse­boom, of Ahold USA. “But or­ga­nized re­tail crime is hav­ing a deeper im­pact. It’s a larger crim­i­nal en­ter­prise.”

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