Florida, federal authorities target organized retail theft
MIAMI - Federal and Florida law enforcement officials said Tuesday they are creating the nation's first task force to tackle the growing problem of organized retail theft, which victimizes nearly every store nationwide and costs retailers some $30 billion in losses each year. Alysa D. Erichs, special agent in charge of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations office in Miami, said retail thievery has become a sophisticated and well-organized criminal enterprise that uses teams of people armed with technology and the Internet to steal merchandise from stores of all sizes. "We are not speaking about simple 'onesie-twosie' shoplifters," Erichs told reporters. The task force, which includes ICE, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and multiple police agencies in South Florida, will target the thieves with federal money laundering and cash smuggling laws in many cases, Erichs said. At the state level, Republican Gov. Rick Scott signed a new law this year that boosts potential prison sentences for organized theft to a minimum of 21 months, said Addy Villanueva, who runs the Miami FDLE office.The Miami area ranks fourth in the nation in organized retail theft, according to the National Retail Federation, behind Los Angeles, New York and Chicago. Rich Mellor, the federation's vice president for loss prevention, said his organization's annual survey of retailers found that more than 90 percent reported being victims of organized theft. Eight in 10 say the problem is increasing. "We are extremely concerned by the organized patterns that are taking place in the retail industry right now as these crime gangs continue to find ways to maneuver the system," Mellor said. At a news conference Tuesday, authorities displayed about $7,000 in merchandise recovered in a recent bust in Broward County. The stolen items were among the most popular across the country: over-the-counter medicines, razor blades, beauty and hygiene products. Also highly popular are personal electronics, said Miami U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer. Criminal tactics run the gamut. One group might use teams of shoplifters to target certain items at multiple stores, later reselling them on the Internet or at a flea market. Others use fake receipts to return items in exchange for gift cards, which they then convert into cash. Still others use legitimate receipts but simply go back to the store, get an identical item, then return it while keeping the original they bought - and then selling it. The goal of the task force is to marshal law enforcement agencies across South Florida so that criminals cannot use jurisdictional boundaries to their advantage. "It will be much more difficult for the criminal element to evade the long arm of the law," said Juan Perez, deputy director of the Miami-Dade Police Department.