Will County law enforcement, businesses work to tackle organized retail crime

A photo showing some of the products involved in a case that is being prosecuted by the Will County State's Attorney's Office against 10 people allegedly involved in a multi-state retail theft ring.

Retail crime, especially the organized kind, is not a victimless crime, said Rob Karr, president and CEO of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association.

Karr defined organized retail crime as a “coordinated sustained effort to steal goods” and monetize those goods “for illicit purposes.”

Because retail is a large revenue generator for state and local governments, there’s no sales tax collected for stolen merchandise, Karr said. People view retail crime as a “victimless crime and it’s not,” he said.

Businesses and law enforcement in Will County and across Illinois have been working to crack down on organized retail crime, which has become a growing concern in recent years.

Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul leads an organized retail crime task force that works with multiple law enforcement agencies to address organized retail crime, which he called a “complex issue that will require a multifaceted solution.”

Karr said one of the factors driving organized retail crime simply is money.

“We wish we knew what was exactly driving it, but it’s people looking to make a quick buck,” Karr said.

Another factor is the lack of restrictions with goods sold at retailers.

“You can’t put everything behind a lock and key,” Karr said, adding that customers generally expect to browse and even hold items up close at stores. “It makes us easier targets for it.”

According to Raoul’s office, organized retail crime and fraud can be mistaken for isolated incidents committed by “low-level offenders” but organized crime rings are often behind these incidents.

“Crime rings connected to the drug trade, human trafficking and other forms of crime target big box stores, pharmacies, hardware stores, auto dealerships and other retailers to carry out sophisticated theft operations and operate across county and state borders,” officials from the attorney general’s office said.

Last year, 10 people were indicted in Will County on charges alleging they were part of “multi-state, organized criminal retail theft fencing operation” involving an estimated $7.5 million in retail products, according to Will County State’s Attorney James Glasgow’s office.

When asked about that case, Karr called it a “textbook example” of organized retail crime.

Glasgow spokeswoman Carole Cheney said the products involved in that case were the sort that customers could get over the counter at a local pharmacy, such as toothpaste, cosmetics and pain relievers. The case involved 278,000 items and 126 pallets, about $7.5 million worth of products.

Walgreens has been habitual victims of retail theft according to a forfeiture complaint filed by Will County prosecutors last December.

At the time the indictments were announced, Glasgow said everyone pays a price when “sophisticated criminals develop distribution systems to transport and sell stolen retail products. Rather than go after the thieves who stole these items at the retailers, we are prosecuting those at the top of the organization so that we can put an end to the entire enterprise. This sends the loud and clear message that crime will not be tolerated in Will County.”

Walgreens spokeswoman Kris Lathan said organized retail crime is a serious problem affecting all retailers. She said Walgreens has taken steps to address the issue and protect the safety of customers and staff.

“Some examples include [but are not limited to] our highly valued partnerships with law enforcement, security professionals and legislators to collaborate on efforts to educate the public about the cost and toll of retail theft,” Lathan said.

Walgreens also has created a major crimes unit composed of team members with a “strong acumen in law enforcement to provide intelligence and assistance to authorities when there is an active investigation into criminal activity,” Lathan said.

Lathan cited last year’s passage of the INFORM Consumers Act in Congress as an important tool to combat organized retail crime and said the legislation will help to remove the “anonymity on online platforms by creating basic accountability measures that protect consumers from illicit goods.

“This legislation will aid law enforcement in their efforts to track organized crime, making it more difficult for bad actors to build illegal businesses and profit by selling stolen or counterfeit merchandise.”

Walgreens has been habitual victims of retail theft according to a forfeiture complaint filed by Will County prosecutors last December.