Crime /

Organized Theft Rings Continue to Wreak Havoc Across U.S.

Some operations are so large they have fleets of 18-wheeler trucks with 'palletized loads of stolen goods'

Organized Theft Rings Continue to Wreak Havoc Across U.S.

Organized retail theft is responsible for more than $100 billion in losses annually.

While many theft rings have groups of people overwhelming and ransacking stores, often featured in videos that go viral on social media, a new investigation has found that many theft groups don’t use the “smash and grab” technique but steal quietly and efficiently.

Following an investigation with multiple law enforcement agencies that lasted eight months, CNBC found low-level shoplifting involves people who appeared to be homeless or mentally ill.

The news organization also discovered elaborate, sophisticated, large-scale operations with internal corporate structures that resemble the very companies they’re stealing from.

“We’re talking about operations that have fleets of trucks, 18-wheelers that have palletized loads of stolen goods, that have cleaning crews that actually clean the goods to make them look brand new,” Adam Parks, an assistant special agent in charge at Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) for the Department of Homeland Security’s law enforcement branch — which is the main federal agency investigating retail crime — told CNBC.

HSI has more than 8,700 employees and 6,000 special agents operating in more than 250 offices throughout the U.S. The division has been in partnership with other agencies and organizations to combat retail theft.

Earlier this month, during a roundtable discussion with Walmart, Lowe’s, Ulta, Rite-Aid, Walgreens, Safeway, Fred Meyer, and Target, the Justice Department and HSI said that they have witnessed a surge in organized retail thefts across the U.S. as the government steps up efforts to disrupt criminal networks.

“Just like any business, they’ve invested their capital into business assets like shrink wrap machines, forklifts,” Parks told CNBC. “That is what organized theft looks like, and it actually is indistinguishable from other e-commerce distribution centers.”

HSI said it has initiated 59 organized retail theft cases in fiscal year 2021, which resulted in 55 indictments and 61 arrests. By the end of fiscal year 2023, cases had tripled to 199, while the number of indictments rose to 284 and arrests soared to 386.

One incident named in the investigation involved Michelle Mack, a 53-year-old San Diego woman, who built an organized theft ring empire by employing a network of a dozen women who stole items she would resell on Amazon.

The women, dubbed the “California Girls,” committed hundreds of thefts in states including Washington, Utah, Oregon, Colorado, Arizona, Illinois, Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Ohio.

In other shoplifting rings, authorities said that people were reselling items out of their homes or at flea markets.

“There’s certain crimes that come up where the public reaches a point where they’re like, ‘We have had enough of this,’ right?” Lt. Michael Ball, who helped oversee the operation, told CNBC. “And this is one of those that’s reached that level where people are saying widely and shouting it all the way up to our governor’s office that they have had enough of this.”

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