Every year thieves — many of them employees — walk out of stores with apparel, jewelry and other merchandise estimated to be worth more than $30 billion, taking with them a hefty chunk of the industry's profits.
Often, the money made from reselling the goods online, to fences or returning them for rebates at the store helps fund criminal enterprises that prey on the ultimate of soft targets: retailers that aim to draw as many people as possible through their doors.
"It all comes to be another tax on the consumer," said Dan Doyle, vice president of loss prevention and human resources at department store chain Bealls Inc. "They end up footing the bill on all this. As a consumer who's concerned about higher prices, they should be mad as hell about the fact that they're out there stealing this stuff and selling it."
Far removed from the shoplifting commonly attributed to adolescents who are looking for a thrill or a freebie, the gangs targeting stores are sophisticated enterprises.
"This is their job, they have people who work for them and potentially people who work for them," said Doyle, explaining the multilayered structure of the syndicate. "They either take orders or they go out and steal stuff knowing they have a market to sell it — the Internet sites that allow people to sell merchandise somewhat anonymously. It isn't like you have to walk into a back alley where you're exposed."
Streetwear, denim, swimsuits, junior fashions and jewelry are all hot items to swipe, he said.
The gangs have a new, formidable foe: the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which has focused more attention on organized crime as of late. In conjunction with retail trade groups, the FBI helped establish an online tracking system to help stores protect themselves and aid law enforcement in capturing and prosecuting criminals.
The organized groups come in all shapes and sizes, from gangs such as MS-13, a violent street gang with Latin American roots, to organizations that use everyone from illegal immigrants to all-American types. Bealls was even hit by a group of strippers who were stealing from stores around Florida and selling the goods to a fence.
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