In markets across the country, loss prevention teams, law enforcement, and offices of the district attorney are coming together to form and strengthen cooperative partnerships to fight the ongoing battle against organized retail crime (ORC). While this fight has cost retailers and retail customers tens of billions of dollars over the past several decades, we have reached the dawn of a new level of awareness and cooperation in these public-private partnerships. In many ways, the storm is breaking due largely to the devotion and commitment of retail industry leaders, public leadership, and the teams in the field that have worked diligently to build these critical relationships.
Naturally, there is much left to do, especially considering the tenacity of those involved in the illicit activity, the determination and ingenuity of those leading these criminal operations, and the multitude of platforms available to sell stolen products through online marketplaces. We need strong leaders and robust plans to make these partnerships most successful and drive results that will expose ORC operations, prosecute those involved, and make our stores and our communities safer as a result.
With this is mind, LP Magazine recently sat down with some of the field generals leading these efforts against organized retail crime to get their insights on the subject and the importance of building these public-private partnerships. To help broaden our perspective, we spoke with members of a retail ORC team, a dedicated law enforcement partner, and devoted partner with an attorney general’s office. All are exceptional talents in the efforts to fight organized retail crime and devoted partners as part of these public-private partnerships.
Christopher Walden is an eighteen-year veteran law enforcement officer and is currently a supervisory special agent with the Utah Attorney General’s Office. Currently, Walden supervises the economic crimes unit C.A.S.E. (Crimes Against Statewide Economy). He is a certified fraud examiner and has proffered expert opinions regarding fraud in court. He is also a board member with the Utah Organized Retail Crime Association (UTORCA).
Detective Brandi “May” Streeter is an eight-year veteran of the Oklahoma City Police Department. Streeter previously worked as a patrol officer and as part of the vice unit, helping establish and later being assigned to the ORC unit. While in college she worked part-time for the US Secret Service through a work-study program. Streeter is also a board member with the Oklahoma Organized Retail Crime Association (OKORCA).
Rory Stallard is the senior manager of AP investigations for The Home Depot based out of Atlanta. He has twenty-four years of AP experience, specializing in ORC for more than twenty-one years. Stallard has helped to expand or create ORC programs with three different retailers. In 2012, he helped to create the Georgia Retail Association Retail Crime Alliance (GRAOCRA), and in 2015, he was the recipient of the GRAORCA Partnership of the Year Award. Stallard has been involved with local and state ORC legislation efforts throughout the country. He has been a criminal justice consultant for the Georgia Board of Education, an advisor for several university criminal justice programs, and assisted the Loss Prevention Foundation in developing the ORC certification course.
Jamie Bourne is currently an organized retail crime manager for The Home Depot, covering parts of the Southern and Western divisions. Bourne has nearly twenty-two years of retail experience, specializing in ORC for the past eighteen years. He has spent the last six years leading various ORC teams across the country for The Home Depot. Bourne is a board member with the Texas Organized Retail Crime Association (TEXORCA) and is an active participant in other ORCAs across the Southern and Western United States. He also assisted the Loss Prevention Foundation in developing the ORC certification course.
LPM: Thank you everyone for joining us today. To our public partners, let’s begin with your opinions on the general subject of ORC. What do you feel is the most misunderstood aspect of organized retail crime from a public perspective?
WALDEN: The impact on our economy. Many retailers will mark up the prices of items in their stores to cover losses due to theft and other crimes. Regular consumers like me must then pay, just a little more, for retailers to make an adequate profit margin. If retailers made more money, they could create more jobs or even pay existing employees more. ORC has a huge impact on our economies, and I wish consumers were more aware.
Also, as I have spent the last two years working these types of cases, I have found that organized retail crime is “one step away” from other major crimes. We have uncovered leads into organized crime and even human trafficking all due to working these types of complex issues. Control the property crimes inside of your jurisdiction, and you can control other major criminal factors more easily.
STREETER: I believe organized retail crime is underestimated by the vast majority. It is largely viewed the same way as a petty theft, with individuals stealing merchandise for sustenance rather than for profit. On the contrary, organized retail crime requires preparation, a hierarchy, and is carried out for profit. If more light was shed on what organized retail crime truly is and how it branches off into other crimes, we would have fewer issues and greater success toward combating the problem.
LPM: To all our partners, what do you feel has contributed most to the rise in organized retail crime?
STALLARD: From a retail perspective, there are several factors we believe contribute to this ongoing concern. In many states, criminal laws have not been amended to catch up to the ORC problem. Organized retail crime is still viewed as shoplifting in many areas, and without the proper ORC laws on the books, offenders are simply not deterred. Lacking stiffer penalties that keep them from committing ORC-related crimes, these professional criminals have realized that it is more lucrative and less risky to commit thefts in retail stores than to participate in the criminal activity that they were once involved with.
BOURNE: Retailers have a diverse breadth of products readily available on the shelves that have high consumer demand, and this merchandise can easily be converted to cash via online platforms. The ease of using the online marketplace to sell stolen product has also made it very advantageous to cut out the middleman altogether. Unfortunately, the current state of the online marketplace also allows for the criminal to sell anonymously and live in the shadows. A booster can travel ten to twenty miles, hit several stores, and walk out with thousands of dollars’ worth of product. Since there are numerous online platforms that can be used to sell the stolen property, they do not necessarily even have to go through the traditional brick-and-mortar fence to convert that product to cash.
STREETER: The rise in dollar amount for felony thresholds across the nation has also played a huge role in the escalation of organized retail crime. For example, in Oklahoma our threshold rose from $500 to $1,000. I have interviewed numerous boosters post-apprehension that have responded, “It wasn’t a felony amount,” or “Can I just get my ticket and go home?” Boosters know the dollar amounts associated with felony charges and specifically steal under those thresholds to avoid more serious charges.
Most police departments do not have a team that specifically works organized retail crime, which also allows for a rise in these types of crimes. With numerous larcenies occurring 24/7, organized retail crime cases at these departments get worked as petty thefts instead of being given the time and attention they require. Police officers and detectives are also bound by the state statutes and city ordinances in the jurisdictions they serve.
Technology is another contributing factor to the rise in organized retail crime. It is easy for those involved, at any level, to use online platforms to further their criminal activity. The use of online resources also contributes to organized retail crime rings conducting their illicit business across state lines, which makes it more difficult for local law enforcement to track activity when it falls outside of their jurisdictions.
I feel another component can be the corporate policies in place at some retail establishments. Just as boosters research and are aware of the felony thresholds, they also know which stores report theft to law enforcement and which are “hands off.” Although these establishments don’t want to give in to organized retail crime, like law enforcement, they are bound by their own policies.
WALDEN: I agree that ease of use, or the low-risk, high-reward nature of the crime, is a primary factor. A person can steal merchandise and fence it themselves through several online e-commerce platforms. It’s fast and easy. Many retailers have gone to a hands-off approach, so now it’s easier than ever before.
I would also argue a lack of customer service provides a prime opportunity to commit theft. As a sixteen-year-old, I worked for a large retailer. I attended the onboarding portion held by my loss prevention associate who discussed that the best deterrent to theft was fantastic customer service. As a young associate, I knew where every item in my section (toys and sporting goods) was located. If anyone entered my portion of the sales floor, I could walk them directly to the item, and I knew if the item was in stock. I knew my department inside and out. I also knew when someone suspicious was walking around in my section, and I knew exactly what items were considered “high theft.” I had absolutely no problem providing top-quality customer service because I knew that this not only was a fantastic sales model but also would deter theft on a large scale.
Now, as an adult consumer, it feels like everyone on the sales floor is busy with stocking shelves or something else that preoccupies their time. If every sales associate went out of their way to provide an awesome customer experience, I think it would deter a large amount of theft.
LPM: Rory, what do you feel is the best approach to getting the support of company leadership in regards to ORC issues?
STALLARD: AP leaders need to educate executive leadership to understand the unique business impact ORC has on profitability and the need for specialized resources to combat the business problem. Once we prove our business case, it is up to asset protection leaders to build the most dynamic investigations team that can deliver tangible results. That requires great diversity of thought, background, and varied experience in selecting the right team to achieve the return on investment needed to sustain or even grow this type of program. At Home Depot we are fortunate that our executive leadership team understands our business needs and supports our efforts as we continue to dedicate resources to focus on combatting ORC issues.
LPM: Brandi, what about on the law enforcement side? What do you feel is the best approach to getting the support of leadership in regards to ORC issues?
STREETER: I am blessed to be part of a police department that has been very supportive of our efforts in combating organized retail crime. The Oklahoma City Police Department has its own organized retail crime unit and has assisted in numerous blitz operations and suppressions in conjunction with retailers. Even though COVID-19 has largely impacted the retail community, our unit, which consists of two detectives, has recovered over $250,000 in stolen merchandise this year alone.
The organized retail crime unit has only been in existence for three years. To create the unit, three sergeants working patrol, myself included, worked a large multimillion-dollar federal case that spanned across numerous states. We were able to take that case and build from it to show our command staff how organized retail crime is not the same as average larceny. However, it wasn’t just a single case that made our unit a reality. We built relationships with local retailers and monitored our cases to show the impact organized retail crime has on Oklahoma City alone. I also showed our supervisors research conducted by the National Retail Federation to support these efforts.
LPM: Chris, what do you feel is the best approach to getting the support of the public regarding ORC issues?
WALDEN: This is a fantastic question. I really feel that education is a key component. As far as local involvement, retail professionals should regularly be communicating with elected and appointed leaders. I would love to see store managers and loss prevention professionals attend city council meetings in their communities and voice their shrink concerns and losses, publicly. I would love to see “open houses” at local retailers inviting the public to listen to a meeting of loss prevention professionals, listening to their concerns. I would like to see store leadership become “honorary colonels,” a group of volunteers that openly support law enforcement and regularly engage in dialog as stakeholders in the community.
On a state level, I think being able to paint a clear picture of shrink numbers and the missed sales tax revenue to state legislators is key. This is what we did here in Utah. Several retailers approached my office after a large case and asked if we (the Utah Attorney General’s Office) could investigate these types of cases on a full-time basis. After having several discussions with retailers and legislators, we were able to create a unit to address these issues.
It has been my experience that our legislators are very supportive, especially after they gain an understanding of the situation and are presented with an adequate plan to address the problem. They are stakeholders and should be at the table. Legislation and public policy are fantastic ways to address problems inside of the stores across local markets.
LPM: Organized retail crime cases often seem to build into significant and, at times, multimillion-dollar investigations on a fairly consistent basis. Why do you think this is?
BOURNE: There are many unique aspects of organized retail crime as it relates to property crimes. Many ORC cases involve complex methods of stealing from retailers that sometimes go unnoticed for extended periods of time. These criminal enterprises have often studied their victims and know how the various retailers operate. They can find the loopholes in policy and/or gaps in physical security. Many of these crimes will cross city, county, and even state lines, which only adds to the complexity when working with our law enforcement partners to prosecute and resolve these investigations. Unfortunately, it can take some time to resolve these cases, and the losses can quickly add up.
WALDEN: For those with malicious intent, it’s such a simple, easy way to make money. Keeping the numbers simple, let’s just say that an average working professional makes $25 an hour, and he or she works a ten-hour day. That’s $250 a day (before taxes of course). As a professional shoplifter involved in ORC, I have the ability to go to a big box retailer and steal an item or two in fifteen minutes, take that to my fence, or fence it myself, and make that $250 in significantly less time. Further, I do not have to pay taxes on that money. I can do this every day for weeks, only working two hours a day (travel, theft, listing, and selling the items). I work one fifth of the amount of time for twice as much profit. If I become organized, I can easily cause retail losses of $5,000 to $7,000 a day!
Further, if/when I get caught, the penalty for a property crime is significantly less or even nonexistent. The reward far outweighs the risk, and those rewards can be extremely lucrative.
STREETER: I believe this is due to the lack of law enforcement, retailers, and the legal system not regularly investigating, properly reporting, and sentencing those involved in organized retail crime to the extent that they can be. I have found organized retail crime works the same way as narcotics. The players are the same, the venues are similar, and the crimes are being committed at the cost of society in the same way.
However, I also believe the expansion of organized retail crime into large-scale investigations hinges on a risk versus reward mentality. Law enforcement and the legal system have been working together to combat narcotics for years, but they haven’t been fighting against organized retail crime with the same tenacity. It doesn’t help that there is a lack of consistent laws nationwide specifically laying out what organized retail crime is and the penalties for being involved in these crimes. Organized retail crime rings can be working for years before anyone in law enforcement, retail, or the legal system become aware of their existence. Once these rings are uncovered, the punishments for thousands, sometimes millions, of dollars in retail theft are minimal in comparison. Therefore, the reward for conducting organized retail crime far outweighs the risk.
LPM: We often hear organized retail crime described as a “gateway” crime to other types of criminal activity. Can you provide us with an example that supports that belief?
WALDEN: We have observed ORC cases turn into large-scale narcotic arrests, fugitive arrests, and even some early indicators of human labor trafficking. We have observed theft cases turn into complex consumer fraud issues and selling items overseas. I recently attended a training class discussing the wide usage of gift cards and in-store credit cards. It is estimated that $40 billion a year is transferred onto gift cards. This makes money laundering simpler because they fall short of current government compliance measures. It’s easy to move money around the world on a preloaded gift card that easily disguises as your bank debit card. All of these crimes can easily begin with ORC cases.
STREETER: I have seen numerous boosters evolve throughout their criminal journeys. It starts with simply stealing merchandise for a minimum payout, growing to stealing to provide merchandise for property fences for a larger profit, and then needing to steal to maintain a lifestyle or addiction, which ends in the booster assaulting retail employees.
When individuals “get away” with a crime numerous times they become accustomed to the outcome. When the outcome changes, they resort to a flight or fight mentality. Unfortunately, when this scenario ends in a fight approach, it is at the expense of employees and sometimes even law enforcement officers.
I have seen known boosters involved in robberies, armed robberies, narcotics distribution, and gang activity. Even if organized retail crime isn’t the “gateway,” the vast majority of boosters are involved in both property and person crimes.
STALLARD: We have numerous cases over the past several years where we have seen smaller theft crews grow to large criminal enterprises over periods of time. These enterprises expanded their operations beyond their city to other areas of the country and used their funds to facilitate other criminal activity. One such international group that affected us was sent over from a European country to commit theft and fraud in our stores. The crew had a “boss” that gave them traveling money, rental cars, and maps to our stores. After thefts and fraud transactions occurred, crew members would leave rental cars behind filled with merchandise for others to later come and retrieve. Once the group had completed their circuit, they would fly out of town while all the stolen product would be loaded up into rental vans and driven to another state. There, the product went through a fence and was sold online to buyers across the globe. After arrests were made, we learned that the leaders of this group had ties to organized crime in another country, and the money this crew was producing was being used to help fund their drug, prostitution, fraud, weapons, and gambling operations in Europe.
LPM: We know that building relationships is critically important in our efforts against organized retail crime. In general, what can retailers do to build and improve these relationships with law enforcement and other public partners? What can law enforcement and other public partners do to build and improve these relationships with retailers?
BOURNE: The foundation of the partnership cannot simply be based on a need for law enforcement to resolve our investigations. When we talk about a specific ORC investigation, it is imperative that retailers do as much of the leg work up front to present law enforcement a prosecutable case that requires minimal effort on their part. Once they see all we can offer to support an investigation and we show them the level of detail we put into our cases, they see us differently. We now have a seat at the table, and they see us as investigative peers that are a resource to help them resolve the investigation as opposed to just being the victim that wants law enforcement to resolve their case.
Retailers need to be willing to support law enforcement in ways that may not directly impact their organization. It could be through financial or charitable support, or it could be just through providing evidence needed to help them resolve an investigation that does not even impact their organization.
Additionally, a relationship is a two-way street. Law enforcement and prosecutors need to be willing to meet with retailers to understand their business challenges. It is okay for law enforcement to turn to ORC industry experts to help provide training for them if they have not had much exposure to organized retail crime. Training and education for the public sector is critical, and often it needs to be led or facilitated by the retail community who have the experience and are dealing with ORC issues on a daily basis.
STREETER: Relationships are key in combating organized retail crime. Law enforcement must be willing to put in the time and effort to working the cases properly. Retailers must be prepared to work with law enforcement by providing loss prevention reports, written statements, CCTV footage, and/or photographs for evidentiary purposes, and the willingness to prosecute. Prosecutors must be willing to work with investigators to provide proper charges and fight for appropriate sentencing.
We all must be willing to put trust in these relationships and share information in order to reduce and resolve these crimes. I have found sharing information and taking the time to explain organized retail crime at multiple levels aides in stronger relationships amongst law enforcement, retailers, and the legal system. However, it must be noted the issues that sometimes create tension throughout these parties are above the level of those in the field actively working to combat organized retail crime. Therefore, patience and information sharing are key in keeping relationships on good working terms.
WALDEN: I am a firm believer in building and fostering relationships. The open communication between stakeholders is imperative for success. I have many partners outside law enforcement, that work for retailers, that I literally collaborate with daily.
As I hear of different trends in the ORC community, I regularly run those issues past my cohorts and have them weigh in on trends they are observing. I have been told by contacts inside of my network that this approach is unique and that I don’t treat the loss prevention or asset protection folks as “security guards.” These are my thoughts regarding these types of partnerships: the loss prevention and asset protection folks inside of my network are the experts; I am not. I rely on them to bring me complex cases and explain them to me and answer my silly questions until I fully understand the scheme. Further, I rely on them to come and testify at trial and explain to a jury these complex issues as well.
The law enforcement community is great at building cases, but the retailers need to have the case basically complete before bringing it to law enforcement. I regularly visit with my network of corporate investigators and explain what else would be beneficial in prosecuting cases. I show them what law enforcement needs to compile the case and what prosecutors need to file the case. In turn, my corporate investigators learn what a “completed” case in Utah needs to look like. This saves time for everyone.
LPM: How important do you feel the role of organized retail crime associations (ORCAs) play in dealing with the ORC problem?
STREETER: Information sharing and working together is of the upmost importance when it comes to combating organized retail crime, and organized retail crime associations provide a platform to do just that. Since organized retail crime rings often travel out of single jurisdictions, we must share incidents that occur in our own precincts with others. This helps to identify suspects, show trends in crimes, track down suspects, and gather theft totals for victims.
WALDEN: The Utah Organized Retail Crime Association (UTORCA) is the only ORCA I have any experience with. I am on the board along with two of the investigators assigned to the task force I supervise, as law enforcement representatives. We communicate, literally daily, with members of UTORCA. Our website is used to disseminate information very quickly, for free, to a network of retail and law enforcement investigators. I also have an analyst that immediately gets the information and uses several investigative techniques to identify the suspects. Even if the case does not come to my unit, we will call the local jurisdiction and let them know that we may have identified a suspect for them.
STALLARD: The ORCAs can play a critical role in bridging the gap between the public and private sectors. ORCA meetings and conferences are great networking and learning events. They can provide essential training opportunities for retailers without a dedicated ORC unit and even provide continuous education credits to our law enforcement partners. ORCAs also provide a way to communicate thefts across a broad network to help identify subjects and bring cases to quicker resolution.
LPM: What do you think are the most important steps that we can take moving forward to address the issue of organized retail crime?
WALDEN: I think that education and awareness are key components moving forward. Engaging law enforcement leadership on a local level will be key—teaching local police detectives to work with retail investigators in a partnership. I have heard so many times from law enforcement that the local retail investigator is not capable of putting together quality information to file a case. I have heard from local retail investigators that law enforcement is lazy and will not follow up on their case even though it is a “slam dunk.”
Simply put, there is a breakdown in communication. As law enforcers, let us take time to train the local retail investigators. Teach them exactly what is needed for prosecution. Also, explain that most bottle necks in prosecution are occurring at the court level and are not controlled by the police. Further, the outcome of the case is outside of the control of either party.
The local retailer needs to partner with law enforcement to show them exactly what the capabilities and limitations are regarding surveillance equipment. There is much we can learn from each other.
BOURNE: Every state is different when it comes to laws and statutes that address ORC. Without the appropriate laws it is nearly impossible to attack the issue. We believe it starts with organizations having the appropriate resources to assert themselves in the legislative process. Leveraging government affairs and/or company legal departments is critical in speaking the same language to legislative bodies on the impact ORC has on the profitability of our companies.
These resources also help to influence law makers on the impact ORC has on our business and helps them see where changes in the laws might need to occur. Our government affairs team has helped us tremendously over the past several years in several states where we have needed some help with getting prosecutor support and changes in laws to help address ORC issues. They also continue to work with other retailers and organizations as well to address the ease that stolen product is being sold through online platforms.
STREETER: I believe all involved parties can aide in moving forward to address the issue of organized retail crime. I also understand this will take time as this task isn’t easy with a lack of manpower across the board, a global pandemic, and the mindset of society focused on judicial and law enforcement reform.
It would be helpful if there was a federal standard for organized retail crime in which the public easily understood the elements, and each state could base their own laws off of it. If each police department had resources working to combat organized retail crime, this would also be helpful. This could be accomplished by creating task forces encompassing multiple agencies working together. Retailers stepping up and filing charges would also be helpful in gaining momentum in this fight against organized retail crime. All in all, there is something for everyone to improve upon to make this effort to combat organized retail crime successful. If we aren’t evolving as quickly as these criminals, we will constantly be falling further behind.
Awareness is also going to be key in moving forward. I am constantly explaining what organized retail crime is to family, friends, and coworkers. Interviews, news stories, conferences, meetings, and press releases like this are great platforms to get the word out about these crimes that are affecting our economy.
All of these things cannot be accomplished alone. We must work together to achieve the desired outcome of seeing a dent put in the amount of organized retail crime nationwide, but it is not an impossible task.