FLORIDA - According to a news article posted on pymnts.com, organized crime syndicates are taking advantage of more relaxed law enforcement due to the coronavirus pandemic and a weakening in anti-shoplifting laws to steal millions of dollars in merchandise from warehouses and retail stores throughout the United States. Last month, law enforcement in Polk County, Florida, broke up two large retail theft organizations.  

In stores throughout Florida, armed robbers entering retail stores, grabbing high-end purses and then running off with the merchandise. The accomplices are often waiting in a getaway car, and the group flees the area with handbags worth thousands of dollars each. 

Another crime that has become more frequent is criminal enterprises engaging in coupon forgery. One gang in California allegedly purchased items using fake coupons. They would either receive items for free or at reduced prices and then sell the merchandise. One store resold the items and advertised that at their store, customers "never pay retail." Investigators seized more than $212,000 worth of fraudulently purchased items that were procured from stores like Target, CVS, Walgreens, and other national chain stores.

State and local law enforcement officials in 18 Florida counties recently broke up a retail theft organization that purportedly embezzled approximately $85,000 worth of "easy to resell" goods such as baby diapers, infant formula, and energy drinks from several Walmart, Publix, and Winn Dixie stores. The report states that the group was raking in anywhere from $350 to $900 worth of goods at a time.

According to Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody, law enforcement in Florida is stepping up efforts to combat retail theft and fraud. She stated that Florida businesses are forced to make consumers pay more for goods to recover their losses. 

Reports of organized retail crime are increasing, and the issue is not due to just the coronavirus pandemic.

Mark Mathews with the National Retail Federation (NRF) stated that retailers had observed a great number of thefts with higher losses as these organized crime groups target warehouses, stores, and cargo. The National Retail Federation just released its annual Organized Retail Crime study, which discusses the growing issue.

About 75 percent of Retail Loss Prevention Executives stated that they had experienced more organized retail crime in 2020. The total estimate of losses was $719,548 per $1 billion in sales. This is an increase of about 2 percent from the year before and up about 60 percent from 2015.

Retail theft experts noted that these criminal gangs frequently focused their operations on stores selling high-end merchandise and more expensive goods. About 34 percent of retailers reported thefts of designer clothing, 16 percent of retailers were seeing designer handbags stolen, and 13 percent of retailers recorded losses of laptops and tablets. However, retailers also report that there are many thefts involving cheap, easy to sell items such as razors and laundry detergent. 

The NRF conducted organized retail crime research from April to May. So their findings may not reflect the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on crime.

According to John Matas, who is a certified financial crimes investigator and certified fraud examiner, "organized retail crime" is much more complex than shoplifting. Mr. Matas stated in his article in Loss Prevention Magazine that the issue also includes cyber fraud, complex returns fraud, counterfeiting, and more complex crimes. Mr. Matas stated that some of the new U.S. criminal justice reforms might have partially fueled these types of scams by making these crimes "low-risk, high-reward crime."

Mr. Matas stated that certain organized criminal enterprises, mafias, syndicates, and gangs that typically monetized their violent drug crime-related income are now turning their criminal operations to low-risk, high-reward organized retail crimes.