Partnering with Law Enforcement to Combat Organized Retail Crime

Shoplifting

While some of the tools of organized retail crime and methods of operation continue to evolve with the changes in technology and dynamics of the retail environment, the importance of cooperative partnerships between loss prevention and law enforcement teams remains a key factor in resolving ORC incidents nationwide. This article stresses the importance of those relationships and the measurable results that can be realized through these partnerships.

When I joined Gap Inc. in 2000, it was immediately evident that along with a select group of other specialty clothing retailers, we were the target of organized retail crime (ORC) rings. Although we had different types of professional organized theft and fraud ring shitting our stores, three groups caused the largest portion of our retail shrink and financial losses: booster bag groups, counterfeit receipt groups, and fraudulent credit card and check rings.

Across the Gap and Banana Republic divisions, an estimated 25 percent of overall retail shrink can be attributed to the booster bag groups—the group with the largest overall impact on Gap Inc. loss. Although these rings have been active in the U.S. for the last 25 years, most retailers didn’t have a contemporary and intimate understanding of how they operated or the resources necessary to combat them. We needed better intelligence on how to apprehend these well-recruited, trained, and organized rings.

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Covering a broad area of the U.S., our region created an undercover organized retail crime program facilitated through plain clothes weekend observations and immediately began making apprehensions with recoveries from $20,000 to $55,000. We implemented an alert system for our stores…as well as other specialty retailers…to immediately contact me when they were hit by one of these groups. I covered the area malls until I caught up with the group.

In addition, a highly-skilled roving undercover agent team was assembled in Dallas to track these organized retail crime rings once they were reported to be in a market. We found that we were arresting the same individuals in different states. Corporate security managers from national rental car companies were also helping us track these groups as they traveled the U.S.

Law Enforcement Involvement and Training

While successful, this program was not without challenges. We quickly recognized the value of involving the local law enforcement agencies. Through proactive outreach to local agencies, we offered training on the booster bag groups to demonstrate the urgent need for action.

The formal training to law enforcement had immediate payback. By introducing the issue in a formal way, we enabled a more covert apprehension system and created a process for filing “bulk loss” reports that exemplified the magnitude of the impact that organized retail crime rings were having on the community. In addition, we could offer an extra level of security to store managers whose safety was threatened by these groups. Local agencies were informing me of the arrests and recovering vanloads of merchandise. In many cases, plain clothes officers were added to mall detail when a group was reported to be in the market.

One example of the benefits of a loss prevention/law enforcement partnership is our work with the Chesterfield Police Department. In a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri, the Chesterfield PD covered the highly-targeted Chesterfield Mall. Specialty stores in the Chesterfield Mall frequently reported major hits by booster groups and, in response, the police department established a strong community-policing program based in the mall.

Our first interaction with this department occurred while I was acting as a surveillant of a booster group in action inside our Chesterfield Mall Gap store. I flagged down Officer Kim Beckman to advise him of the situation. While watching from a neighboring store, we witnessed the organized retail crime team steal stacks of clothing with speed and efficiency. But, with the assistance of Officer Beckman and responding on- and off-duty officers, the group was apprehended.

35The department invited me to meet with Chesterfield police officers assigned to the mall. We discussed how these organized retail crime groups operate in malls, and strategized ways to apprehend them. Since the training, Chesterfield has had great success in arresting these rings. In fact, we can now call 911 upon discovery of a hit and have confidence in the department’s ability to take care of the problem. Officers Beckman and Jim Carroll have been the drivers of these arrests.

Another important component in the building of local partnerships to stop organized retail crime is a strong relationship with the district attorney. We have met with various district attorneys to discuss the criminals in question and to establish what elements are needed to charge the groups with organized crime. In Chesterfield, Officer Carroll and I met with a senior investigator at the St. Louis County D.A.’s office to address the relevant issues. Taking the time to learn the elements needed for prosecution, by jurisdiction, has been invaluable.

Arresting ORC Rings—Tips for Law Enforcement

  • Know they are in the area. Ensure stores contact either their regional loss prevention managers or law enforcement contacts immediately upon discovery of a hit.
  • The most successful agencies don’t enter the mall when organized retail crime hits are reported. They set up surveillances in strategic locations in the parking lots or garages. Responding officers should position themselves in the parking lots outside the mall entrances, nearest the stores that reported the theft. In an effort to be undetected by the group, the officers should park further out in the lot. In the parking lots, look for people waiting in vehicles that are not running. These groups never have the engine, heat, or air conditioning running. Engine noise or an exhaust cloud could draw attention to the vehicle as the “mule” secrets the stolen goods.
  • In the mall, look for customers who are not showing affection. These groups rarely hold hands or laugh like normal customers.
  • The mules, or the individuals who carry the stolen merchandise from the store to the vehicle, will usually walk past their vehicle first, then make a U-turn as if they unintentionally missed their car. In that time, they scan the lot to see if they are being pursued without looking over their shoulder in an obvious fashion.
  • Ask department store loss prevention or mall security to help with video surveillance of the suspect’s vehicle, if possible.
  • If the group discovers they are being watched and starts to flee, take the following steps. First, request that department store loss prevention check bathrooms and customers service areas for any of the subjects. These are known places for a suspect to hide until they can arrange transportation out of the area. Restaurant and mall restrooms are also good locations. Second, instruct the local cab company to alert the department of any pick-ups from the mall.
  • If suspects see an officer approaching them at the vehicle, many of these subjects will throw the booster bag into the vehicle and lock the door. At this point, the mule will not give consents to enter the vehicle. The mule will rarely have the keys to the car. They will likely have the remote or the car will be unlocked. The actual entry key will be behind the gas cap lid, above the driver’s visor, or under the driver’s side floor mat. These groups do not want to be connected to their vehicles.
  • When an arrest is made, if the suspects cannot immediately provide legal proof of citizenship, the agency should contact the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). In many cases, holds will be placed on thesuspects that allow the agency to conduct critical background checks while the suspects are in custody instead of learning of warrants after they have been bonded out. We often see funds being wired from the East Coast for their bonds.

What Gap Has Learned About These Groups

Often, the subjects in these organized retail crime groups are individuals of South American descent. Many have created independent start-up groups throughout the U.S. that operate in the same fashion and have splintered off to form their own teams.

The most sophisticated organized retail crime groups have strong ties to New York, New Jersey, Miami, and Los Angeles. These groups have divided up the country and rarely cross into each other’s territory.

They predominantly use booster bags with traditional foil and duct tape linings designed to defeat electronic article surveillance (EAS) systems. The more sophisticated bags, used by mostly East Coast groups, are lined with sheets of foil and carbon paper. These groups also use a separate sheet of material that is foil-lined, about one foot square, called a shield, which is placed over the clothing in the bag to add additional protection from overhead EAS systems. Some bags will be doubled to prevent tearing from the weight of the stolen items. These bags can easily be detected by the four handles on the bag. We are starting to see more lined brief cases, backpacks, computer bags, garment bags, and purses.

After September 11th, these organized retail crime groups stopped using air transportation because of the potential scrutiny of their identification. They tend to make long road trips in either personal or rented vehicles. They either drive the stolen merchandise back to the coasts or ship the items via United Parcel Service or Federal Express. They rarely use the U.S. Postal Service after the anthrax scares resulted in the higher scrutiny of the mail.

They know our schedules for new merchandise rollouts as well as we do. Within hours of a new rollout, we receive reported hits to the new product lines.

They tend to enter a city on a Thursday and leave on the following Monday. They rent vehicles through companies like National, Thrifty, and Dollar using fake IDs. They often rent passenger vans such as Chrysler Town & Country or Dodge Voyagers. We are also seeing a trend toward large four-door sedans where the mule can sit in the back seat and sneaks the merchandise into the trunk via the cargo door from the back seat. They stay in motel chains where they have immediate access from their vehicles to the door of their room. They change clothes often throughout the day. They have been observed changing entire outfits as they relocate their vehicles to different parts of the mall.

They work in teams of three to ten people, but most teams don’t operate together for long periods of time. They often interchange players to avoid being detected from city to city. Some organized retail crime members, usually the mules, are intentionally kept out of the loop on the daily itineraries, motel accommodations, and other details.

Next Steps at the Gap

The success of this regional effort has proven the need for expanding the focus on organized retail crime company-wide. Recently, a full-time ORC position has been approved to coordinate Gap’s resources from coast to coast.

Apart from simply tracking and investigating organized retail crime rings targeting Gap stores, one of the most important roles of this new resource is to educate both our internal store employees as well as law enforcement and other local agencies. This person will also become Gap’s focal point for coordinating efforts with other retailers, like Limited Brands, who already have resources dedicated to combating organized retail crime. By extending our partnership with local law enforcement to other national retailers, the retail loss prevention community will be able to make even greater strides at reducing our losses from organized retail crime.

Retail Business and Community Policing

By Police Officer James Carrol

Chesterfield is a growing suburban community of 46,802 located in St. Louis County, Missouri, with residential, retail, and manufacturing business increasing almost daily. Located in the heart of the city is Chesterfield Mall. The mall is of moderate size consisting of brand name stores, such as GAP, Banana Republic, Limited, Express, and Abercrombie & Fitch. It is anchored by May Company’s Famous Barr, Sears, and Dillard’s. The mall is located on the western boundary of St. Louis County and draws business not only from the immediate St. Louis area, but surrounding counties as well.

Chesterfield is policed by its own police department headed by Colonel Ray Johnson, chief of police. The department has 93 full-time employees with a sworn/commissioned staff of 83 officers. My partner, Officer Kim Beckmann, and I are assigned to the business and retail community. Together we investigate crimes such as larceny (both external and internal), bad checks, and credit fraud, as well as shoplifting.

The majority of shoplifters that we deal with are local organized retail crime rings that move from mall to mall locally. Such movement is prompted as a result of being taken into custody and becoming more recognizable. These local thieves usually return their stolen goods for money or gift cards.

Among our major frustrations is the lack of cooperation and willingness by retailers to formally prosecute retail thieves. Clearly, in any professional organization, liability is always a concern. Many of the retail employees and managers that we deal with are concerned about possible discipline if they get involved in the apprehension of a shoplifting suspect. As a result of these concerns, they simply ignore the thieves as they go about their business of stealing from the business.

Partnering with the Gap’s Nelson Harrah

We experienced a breath of fresh air when we met Nelson Harrah, regional loss prevention manager for Gap Inc. We first met Harrah during routine patrol of the Chesterfield Mall. He had come to town to do surveillance at area malls for professional shoplifting groups that he was following and gathering intelligence on.

Harrah approached us, and explained his mission. He met with us on several occasions, explained the operations of his organized retail crime (ORC) taskforce, and shared their methods of operation. He also shared his intelligence on how the organized retail crime rings operated, and what we could expect when they were in town. We learned that the groups usually worked with four individuals, often of Latino or Hispanic decent. One individual would work as a lookout, one as an employee distraction, while the remaining two worked to clear merchandise from displays. Of these two, one would hold the booster bag while the other loaded it. The booster bags were lined with carbon paper and foil to defeat the sensor tag and alert systems.

The groups traveled in rented or borrowed mini vans or SUVs, which were usually licensed from warmer climate states, such as Florida, Texas, or California. The vehicles used were chosen for their ability to store and conceal large quantities of merchandise. The rear seat is removed so that merchandise can be laid down then covered with a blanket or similar item to conceal it. Minivans and SUVs also have tinted windows for the rear compartments, which add to the difficulty of seeing into the vehicle to detect plain-view evidence.

The vehicles are left unattended and unlocked with the ignition key hidden in a convenient spot, such as over the sunvisor, in the ashtray, or under the floor mat. This would allow transportation and escape for anyone in the group who had not been caught when legal intervention was started by security or police.

Successfully stolen merchandise is shipped to a collection point and then sent out of the country or to black market shops located on the coasts.

Successful Organized Retail Crime Cases

Since first meeting Harrah, the Chesterfield Police Department has successfully prosecuted three organized retail crime cases to date. This success is in great part due to the information and intelligence shared by Harrah.

A Mule from Queens. During the first case, Harrah worked with Officer Beckmann to successfully apprehend a woman and young man as they boosted stolen clothing from the Gap store in Chesterfield Mall. A successful interview with the young man by Officer Beckmann revealed that he had just flown into St. Louis from New York. He was recruited in Queens, New York, while on a smoking break and offered a tempting proposition—make up to $200 a day, tax-free, based on productivity, while traveling all expenses paid. However, he was given limited details about what his role would be.

He went to La Guardia Airport and was given a plane ticket to St. Louis by an unknown lady that he never saw again. Once in St. Louis, he was met by another two females and driven to a motel and checked in. The next morning he was driven to area malls where he was told that he would be carrying the bags from the stores to the van, then bringing the empty booster bags back into the mall for another trip. If caught, he was told to tell police that an unknown person had paid him $20 to carry the bags to the van for him.

The woman arrested with him did not make any statement.

California Plates. In the second case Harrah called us at the station to tell us that he was watching some potential suspects. As we responded to the mall, he informed us that four suspects were currently boosting from stores that included Gap and Limited. He described the suspects as an older man and woman acting as a couple and two younger men that could have been their children.

As we arrived, we set up outside of the mall and waited for Harrah to call. As the two young men left the mall to unload their booster bags into a waiting vehicle, they began to run when they saw us, but were arrested after a brief chase. Their booster bag along with the stolen items was recovered. We also located their vehicle, which was a minivan with California plates. The vehicle was unlocked, the ignition key was in the ashtray, and inside was other stolen clothes and additional booster bags.

Subsequent investigation revealed that the van was purchased at a used car dealership in southern Los Angeles in a fictitious name with a bogus check. The two arrested suspects were found to be illegal immigrants. As we chased the two young men, the older man and woman entered the mall through an anchor department store. They ultimately could not be located and successfully avoided apprehension.

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Quick Thinking at Express. The third arrest was the result of some quick thinking on the part of alert employees at the Express store. The female employees observed four men working in a group. One stood outside the store, one went to the back of the store to distract the employees on hand, while the other two were milling about the front of the store.

Additional help was summoned from the back room and the suspects suddenly found themselves smothered with friendly customer service on a one-to-one basis. The men appeared out of place in a young women’s shop and were asking inappropriate questions for the type of retail merchandise. They soon became frustrated and left the store without incident. The employees alerted our department to the suspicious behavior and began calling neighboring merchants.

I responded to the store and soon found three of the men. As soon as the lookout saw me in the mall, he called the other two by cellular phone. I turned around and saw two men talking on their cell phone. These two turned around and began walking away from me. When I tried to catch up to them in order to talk to them, they quickened their pace. Finally, the man carrying the booster bag dropped it and ran. He was apprehended shortly as were his accomplice and the lookout.

We located their minivan, which had Florida license plates and had been rented from a local car rental agency in Miami. This vehicle also was unlocked with the ignition key under the driver-side floor mat. The vehicle was linked to the suspects and an inventory search of the van recovered in excess of $11,000 in stolen clothing. Of these three suspects one was an illegal immigrant and another had questionable resident status. No viable information was gathered from interviewing them.

True Spirit of Community Policing

These experiences are great examples of police and merchants working together to solve problems. Working together to pool intelligence and resources resulted in a win-win situation for everybody. Clearly, theft awareness and prevention was enhanced. In these cases, merchants recovered thousands of dollars in merchandise that otherwise would have been written off as losses. Community residents benefited since the loss is not being passed onto their cost of shopping, and the community is made safer by removing the criminal element.

We anticipate that through the combined efforts of Harrah and our department, we have sent a strong message to these organized retail theft rings that Chesterfield is not an easy target, but rather an excellent place to be detected, caught, and sent to prison.

As Officer Beckmann and I learn of new organized retail crime scams and methods of stealing, we share them with our merchants and employees through business checks and merchant meetings. We also encourage phone chains so that when one store sees an organized retail crime group working the mall, they alert others to be on the watch for them. This is beneficial because almost always when we arrest a suspect at one store, we recover merchandise from other stores. Everybody is a winner except for those caught stealing.
Partnerships forged between retail businesses and law enforcement agencies are proving to be among the best strategies in our continuing effort to reduce incidents of retail theft and organized retail crime.

 

This article was first published in 2004 and updated in January 2016.

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