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Walking the Walk, But Talking the ORC in Europe

According to Wikipedia, the orcs in Tolkien’s fantasy trilogy Lord of the Rings are “a race of creatures used as soldiers and henchmen by both the greater and lesser villains in the battle of good versus evil forces in Middle Earth.”

This is reputedly a metaphor for the impact of the industrial revolution on England’s green and pleasant lands and the rise and relentless march of fascism across Europe during the 1930s, when it was written.

However, there is an interesting parallel with today’s definition of ORC, organized retail crime, which involves actors who take a wide range of forms, from anonymously dark cyber-fraudsters operating offshore and off-jurisdiction to locust-like shoplifting “mules” blitzing major towns and cities of stock in their travelling wake.

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Both carry out the industrial-scale theft from retailers as they either manipulate the ether as their weapon of choice or move in swathes up and down major route and road networks and crossing police force boundaries with seeming impunity.

This is because the ORC forces are, as the name suggests, extremely organized, often using false identities and working on behalf of larger, anonymous criminal gangs linked to or funding other more serious offenses including drugs, prostitution, people trafficking, and even terrorism.

Whereas in the United States there is a move to recognize the issue nationally, no such uniformity exists in Europe, despite the same MOs and the fact that many of the criminals themselves originate in different parts of the continent. Firstly, there is no definition of ORC. Further, the police forces are not connected and generally do not share the kind of intelligence that could link the wider impact or highlight its complexity and sophistication.

For example, there is still little coordinated acknowledgement or action against organized retail cyber-crime, often from overseas servers, although the lead police forces in the UK—the City of London Police and the Metropolitan Police—have initiatives in place (Action Fraud and Operation Falcon) to build a better picture of the scale of the problem and profile of the offenders.

In the physical world, ORC is viewed as traveling crime, with under-resourced and target-focused police forces concentrating upon displacement or individual cases of shop theft that could result in a fine or fixed penalty notice.

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At worst, it is viewed as low-priority shoplifting, and in many areas is systematically decriminalized by poor or no police response. In some instances, store staff have been discouraged from reporting such incidents if they are “low value” or do not involve physical or verbal abuse.

Consequently, there are fewer arrests, and a culture of under-reporting has developed because demoralized store staff believe nothing will change. This is turn has resulted in an even lower police response because the figures reveal that retail crime is down. In reality, the opposite is the case because the crimes were not reported in the first place.

In the UK, the 2014 British Retail Consortium’s (BRC) crime survey said shoplifting, cyber-crime, and fraud were at their highest rates since the current recording system began in 2004. Although the volume of theft offenses fell by 4 percent, the BRC’s figures highlighted that 40 percent of crime was carried out by organized gangs targeting more expensive items—electrical goods, designer clothes, power tools, and cosmetics—in bulk to sell online.

There is more than anecdotal evidence to suggest that many of the offenders originate in Eastern Europe and hit stores in many major UK cities over a six-month period before being replaced by another gang of mules, all of whom are sending the goods back to the countries of origin via courier services.

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Despite this, there is no literature about the scale of European ORC, although anecdotally, it is likely to reach into the tens of millions of euros.

According to Robert Jennings, fraud and loss prevention director at Dixons Carphone, the issue has not been acknowledged. “We have lived in denial of ORC, but it has been going on for many years with shoplifting gangs stealing to order and selling items at car boot sales, for example. However, the problem has now morphed into a wider issue with gangs operating out of Eastern Europe and the industrial selling of stolen goods on online auction sites, which were the unintended consequences of advances in technology.”

He said that although there was no official definition in Europe, there still needed to be a more joined-up approach to tackling the issue.

“If we know that 80 percent of our losses is due to 20 percent of organized criminal activity, we have a duty to make better use of the improved collaboration and sharing that is going on to create a strategy to fight it. At the moment, there is a lot of data floating around, but I see no strategy or real action.”

In the finale of Lord of the Rings, orcs are driven from Middle Earth by a disparate group of hobbits, elves, and goblins who ordinarily would not have given each other the time of day but came together at a time of adversity. Retailers across Europe are now better disposed to sharing non-competitive information, and police are also bringing some focus to the problem through the studying of travel patterns of criminality. But with resourcing issues as they are, it seems that only a concerted effort, stronger retail partnerships, and extensive lobbying can deliver the killer blow of intelligence-led solutions to bring European ORC to heel.

This article was excerpted from Walking the Walk, but Talking the ORC, which was originally  published in LP Magazine EU in 2015. 

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