Something was amiss at the Target stores in Atlanta. Small, high-ticket items such as razors and film were disappearing from store shelves at an alarming rate. The stores assets protection teams were doing all they could to address the problem, but catching individual shoplifters didnt appear to be making much of a dent. So they contacted Target Investigations, a highly trained headquarters-based team specializing in organized retail crime investigation.
Target Investigations moved quickly to establish a legitimate case to bring to law enforcement. The team then partnered with the FBI, IRS, INS, and police departments in three states in an extensive investigation that ultimately uncovered dozens of suspects working out of covert warehouses in the Atlanta area, repackaging and shipping stolen retail merchandise to co-conspirators in New York and Baltimore, who then distributed it back into legitimate markets.
Twenty-nine suspects were indicted on charges of theft and money laundering, and many more were arrested on lesser charges. Under search warrants, law enforcement agents seized bank accounts, vehicles, $300,000 in cash, and $1.6 million in retail merchandise. Investigators estimate that this multimillion-dollar theft ring had been taking in more than$10,000 in stolen goods each day.
No Pain, Big Gain
How big of a problem is organized retail crime? To put it mildly, huge. Relatively few suspects are caught, and those who are, often face little more than a slap on the wrist, perhaps a minimal fine, before hopping right back in the game. Rarely is jail time part of the equation. What other crime promises easy profits with such low risk?
And face it, retailers are particularly tempting victims. Our stores are stationary targets they cant run and hide from potential perpetrators. In fact, we swing our doors wide open to the public every day. Plus, were constantly restocking, thus ensuring that the thieves well never runs dry. And regardless of the type of crime merchandise theft, check or credit fraud, return scam nobody gets hurt (at least in theory) because the victim is a place, not a person. Its an enticing scenario for the criminally minded.
The continuing advent of electronic technology is adding fuel to the fire as well. As technology becomes increasingly sophisticated, so do organized retail crime enterprises. The increasing accessibility of personal information via electronic databases and the ease of completing remote electronic transactions via the Internet have catapulted identity theft into the spotlight as one of the fastest-growing crimes in America. What better way to gain access to cash and credit sources and elude detection on unlawful transactions than to borrow the identities of law-abiding citizens?
No More Victim
The goal of organized retail crime rings is simple: to make big bucks at the expense of retailers without getting caught. Though they work outside the bounds of law, these groups essentially function as highly sophisticated business enterprises. Most have a well-established leadership hierarchy and a clearly defined business plan. They use intelligence, speed, mobility, and technology with astounding expertise. And their retail crime profits are often used to finance other more insidious illegal businesses, including narcotics operations, pornography, gang activity, money laundering, and even international terrorism.
By the mid-nineties, organized retail crime had reached epidemic proportions and Target Corporation (then known as Dayton Hudson Corporation) had reached a resolution: our days of being a victim were over. The bad guys were about to lose one of their cash cows. Much as an entire bee colony can be snuffed out simply by removing the queen, we reasoned that we could topple the infrastructure of crime rings preying on our stores by implicating their leaders on serious criminal charges. So, we launched an innovative new investigative team assigned to uncover the upper echelons of these organizations and their incriminating activity.
Part revolution and part evolution, this aggressive team has subsequently been expanded, tweaked, and refined into what is now known simply as Target Investigations. Comprised of highly trained investigators supported by state of-the-art technology, this teams success in uncovering and untangling vast networks of suspects and crimes is earning the respect of law enforcement and criminals alike.
Some members of the Target Investigations team are stationed in key markets to ensure a swift response to breaking cases and to provide ongoing investigative support to stores in high risk areas. Others comprise a highly mobile national investigations unit responding to cases that are multimarket, multistate, or international in scope. The rest of the team works out of Target headquarters in Minneapolis to support all investigative efforts.
Taking It to Their Turf
It used to be that once outside the stores doors, shoplifters and fraudsters could breathe a sigh of relief because they were home free. But not anymore. Target Investigations is robbing them of that protection by taking the investigation to their turf. Though our store-based assets protection teams do all they can to deter theft and fraud,organized crime groups are adept at finding cracks in the system and slipping through. Target Investigations augments the efforts of our in-store teams by targeting criminals and cases that these teams are neither equipped nor tasked to handle.
Whereas a store-based team is like a soccer goalie, standing alert in the goal box prepared to protect the net from incoming shots, Target Investigations plays a dynamic role, challenging the opponent all across the field. When evidence suggests that a crime ring may be targeting our stores, our investigators use their mobility and expertise to quickly expand the scope of the investigation beyond the stores and into the broader community.
Assisted by sophisticated technology and headquarters-based support, the team gathers information from a wide variety of sources and cultivates it into something upon which we can take action. Such intelligence is a critical aspect of any comprehensive investigation into organized crime, since sophisticated criminal groups are notorious for keeping the identities and locations of their leaders well hidden. It also uncovers evidence that helps ensure the viability and successful resolution of cases.
Partnership with law enforcement is also critical to the investigative process. Local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies provide expertise, legal power, and jurisdiction to handle components of a comprehensive investigation that we can not. Target investigators, on the other hand, offer information, material resources, and retail expertise that law enforcement agents cannot readily access themselves. We often merge these assets of law enforcement and private industry on specific cases by developing a retail crime task force.
Guest Friendly, Criminal Unfriendly
Each day that an organized crime ring stays in business is another day it spends feeding off of retail America, so the most obvious benefit of a successful investigative strategy is financial. Shutting down the multi million-dollar retail crime ring based out of Atlanta, for example, certainly had a positive financial impact on Target, along with many other retailers. And though only limited assets were recovered, one can only speculate how many millions of dollars worth of future financial drain were prevented when just that one group literally one out of thousands was stopped.
But the benefits aren’t solely financial. Each time Target Investigations helps put a criminal group out of business, we contribute to making our stores a safer and friendlier environment for guests and team members. This is a high priority for Target, as is making a positive impact on the quality of life in our stores communities. When our efforts to keep the criminal element out of our stores results in a meth lab getting shut down or a crack ring getting busted, were making our whole community a safer place. This impacts our business and makes Target a better place to be.
Not long ago, at the pinnacle of a two-year, multistate investigation, Target investigators were present as a fully armed SWAT team arrested the elusive leader of an organized crime group and several members of his cadre. They had been boarding a luxury speedboat on the shore of a remote, serene lake. As the handcuffed leader stood knee deep in water a hundred miles from the nearest Target store, he spotted one of our investigators. Unable to conceal his surprise, he demanded, What the (blank) is Target doing way out here!
Each time Target Investigations and its law enforcement partners put an organized crime group out of business, we believe were sending an important message to others who may dare to prey on our stores: If you mess with Target, youre going to get caught.