Colorado ORCA - In The News
  Posted on: Thursday, February 9, 2012
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Modern mafia: Shoplifting gangs target Colorado stores

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DENVER - You may think of shoplifting as a petty crime, stealing small items for personal gain, but that's not what this story is about. This is about organized retail crime - gangs of shoplifters who are targeting Colorado stores.
The losses are staggering - half a billion dollars a year in Colorado alone and $30 to $50 billion nationwide.

On Friday, a Colorado lawmaker will lay out his plan to change the law and crack down on these shoplifting gangs.

Rep. Mark Barker (R-Colorado Springs) is going to introduce a bill in the State House that will crack down on organized retail crime and give law enforcement more options.

"Instead of taking each offense one at a time and dealing with them separately, it allows them to aggregate the offenses over the state and perhaps even over multiple states and charge them under the organized crime act," Barker said.

The bill will also crack down on the stores that knowingly buy stolen goods and resell them. It will also have a provision to do more education of law enforcement about why organized shoplifting is a crime worth fighting.

Professional shoplifters are known in the retail industry as "boosters." The items you pay for are the same items they steal.

From health and beauty products to baby formula to batteries, there's a long list of items preferred by boosters.

9Wants to Know interviewed an organized retail crime investigator, who we'll call Tom. He cannot reveal his true identity because he is actively involved in undercover investigations.

"We've seen them steal up to $2,000 or $3,000 within minutes," Tom said.

Tom is not a police officer. He works for a major grocery chain. All the big stores hire people like Tom, who often operate like undercover cops.

It can be a dangerous job.

"I know people who've been stabbed or had a gun pulled on them, or had them try to run over them with a car," Tom said.

Already this year, there have been two incidents in Colorado where shoplifters blasted guards with pepper spray while making a run for it.

Lakewood Police Chief Kevin Paletta calls it a troubling sign organized retail crime rings are becoming more brazen.

"They're desperate. Their livelihood depends on it. Many times their life may depend on it," Paletta said.

Paletta was on a task force to fight organized retail crime. He says once an item is stolen, it's tough to trace.

Stolen items are sometimes sold online, or at smaller stores and shops that purchase stolen goods from boosters.

"Everybody is the victim in these types of cases. There are several outlets where these items wind up. Flea markets are an example," Paletta said.

The Mile High Marketplace in Adams County is the largest year-round outdoor flea market in Colorado. Vendors caught selling stolen or counterfeit items are kicked out and reported to the authorities.

"Many very legitimate people are selling items at the flea market so somebody who is doing it illegally can sort of blend in with the people who are there legitimately," Paletta said.

9Wants to Know went undercover with Tom and another investigator as they searched for stolen items.

They bought two brand-name face lotions from two different vendors for a fraction of the retail price. The boxes still had security stickers, one from a Safeway in Arvada, and the other from a CVS in Florida.

"We strongly believe these could be stolen products," Tom said.

Both vendors denied selling stolen items.

"When you're opening something out of a package that's selling for one tenth of what it would at a store, there is a high likelihood that it is stolen," Paletta said.

One of the vendors, Yonoea Stadler, provided 9Wants to Know with a Safeway receipt that shows lotion was purchased from the store in 2007.

Stadler says most of her products come from a wholesaler who buys in bulk what mainstream stores can no longer sell.

"A lot of them are good way beyond their actual expiration date," Stadler said.

Stadler says she has been approached to buy stolen items, but always says no.

"It's hurting other legitimate vendors out there. It causes prices to go up for everybody," Stadler said.

Proving an item was stolen is difficult, unless you have video of an actual sale taking place.

9Wants to Know obtained video of an organized retail crime investigator posing as a shoplifter and selling a bag full of items to a convenience store near the State Capitol.

"I have two bottles of shampoo. I've got six things of deodorant, and I've got two of these. I got to pay my rent. I'm poor. This is like $100 worth of stuff," the female investigator said in the undercover video.

The camera then shows a clerk handing over $15 cash

9Wants to Know Investigative Reporter Will Ripley went to the store and a different clerk told him they're not allowed to buy stolen products. When Ripley informed the clerk there was video of a store employee paying cash to an undercover agent posing as a booster, the clerk said it is not a regular practice to buy stolen items.

"We're not allowed to. If somebody does, he gets fired right away," the clerk said.

Paletta says shoplifting been tied to violent crimes like assault, as well as human trafficking and drug smuggling.

"It's many times a gateway crime to much larger criminal enterprises," Paletta said.

9Wants to Know obtained federal court documents from a case out of Texas where an organized retail crime ring was sending money to the Middle East.

"It had ties, solid ties, back to Hezbollah," Tom said.

In 2003, 18 arrest warrants were issued, 11 convenience stores were closed, and massive amounts of merchandise were seized by investigators. They also recovered nearly a quarter million dollars in cash.

The leader of the ring, Mohammed Khalil Ghali, is currently serving a 14-year prison sentence.

You may not even realize you're buying stolen merchandise - or what your money is paying for.

"We have seen their behavior escalate. You're actually supporting and sustaining this criminal enterprise," Paletta said.

The global crime is on the rise here in Colorado.

Lakewood Police recently broke up an organized retail crime ring from El Salvador and they're investigating ties to drug and human trafficking.
The legislation that will be introduced Friday would allow law enforcement to group these crimes together, possibly even charge them under the organized crime act.

Retailers and investigators say, until these shoplifting rings are taken more seriously, their crimes will only get worse.

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