The holidays quickly are approaching and with the holiday season comes an increase in retail theft at shopping malls and other outlet stores. The past several years have seen an emergence of what is called organized retail theft. Eclipsing thefts committed by a single individual, professional shoplifting organizations orchestrate thefts that target high-end and box retail stores.
Organized retail theft involves two or more people who commit the crime of professional shoplifting, intending to steal retail merchandise to resell for a profit. Unlike shoplifting, which consists of an individual stealing something for their personal use, organized retail theft operations are usually large-scale operations backed by a criminal enterprise that also may engage in other types of theft, including fraud, money laundering and drug operations.
Two increasingly common types of organized retail theft are those referred to as “takeover” and “smash-and-grab” crimes. Communities that have shopping malls such as North Riverside, Lombard and Oak Brook are particularly susceptible to organized theft operations.
These crimes pose a significant safety threat to retail workers and customers alike as thefts often turn aggressive and violent. In a takeover retail theft (similar to takeover bank robberies), the offenders usually storm the store – masked or wearing hoodies – immediately announce a robbery is in progress and proceed to rob the establishment and shoppers inside the store.
Typically, there are six to eight but there can be as many as 12 individuals who storm the store simultaneously. In smash-and-grab operations, multiple people run into the store with hammers, or sometimes sledgehammers, smash the display cases, scoop up all the property and flee. These individuals also are masked and, at times, armed.
A retail theft operation usually is divided into two parts: boosting and fencing. The boost steals goods from the retail store and/or customers. The fence or fence operation is responsible for buying and receiving the merchandise and reselling it for a profit. Stolen merchandise can be found at flea markets, pawn shops and illegitimate retail merchandise establishments. Today, one of the fastest-growing ways to get rid of stolen property is to resell it on online marketplaces that facilitate anonymous, large-scale, fast-paced movement of goods.
The retail theft problem is widespread, including in our communities.
During the past Christmas season, Oak Brook experienced several violent, large-scale retail theft crimes, as did other area shopping malls and strip mall locations.
Combatting retail theft is an ongoing challenge. Locally, strategies are being implemented to stem the tide of retail theft. Recently, the village of Woodridge received a $115,000 grant to help deter retail theft. The village invested the money into installing 20 license plate reader cameras, which allow police to search for license plates on suspected vehicles linked to retail theft. While the cameras don’t prevent crime, they give detectives a jump on tracking offenders whose subsequent arrests thwart their ability to commit additional thefts. The cameras, however, do facilitate the prevention of theft when stolen vehicles, often used in theft crimes, are identified on mall property. In this case, police are immediately alerted and can conduct a traffic stop before the theft occurs.
The Illinois Attorney General’s office set up a specialized unit to go after organized retail theft crime. While it’s had some success in recent years, more investment is needed. There also needs to be more aggressive prosecution through the state’s attorney’s offices. Political will to prosecute people in this recent climate seems lacking.
Police officers have publicly expressed their frustration. Police wonder why they should waste time getting into an altercation with an offender when that person is not going to go to jail because of overcrowding or the low priority that full prosecution of such cases are given. I believe there is a clear and pressing need for more political will, more robust prosecution and more backing for law enforcement when prosecuting organized retail theft cases.
Law enforcement must make it a priority to go after these high-profile retail theft organizations. If the problem persists unabated and unaddressed, undesirable consequences likely are inevitable. Some stores will shut down or relocate. Other retailers plagued by these types of violent thefts will see their insurance rates and private security expenses increase. These costs eventually will get passed on to the consumer, an unwelcome and unpleasant prospect.
I’d like to leave you with one very important piece of advice: In the event that you are in a store when a violent takeover or smash-and-grab theft occurs, comply with every demand the offenders make. Give them whatever they request. Resisting is not worth your life. Property is replaceable. A human life is not.
• Tom Weitzel was chief of the Riverside Police Department. Follow him @chiefweitzel.