Organized crime is nothing new, but online commerce paired with the pandemic has allegedly caused rampant in-bulk theft from stores. The organized crime rings then sell the goods online — often at an inflated price. This criminal network is a menace that law enforcement and investigators are working to battle.
Attorney Ben Stechschulte discusses the problem of “boosters” — people hired by criminals to steal merchandise — and how these types of crimes are sometimes excessively prosecuted.
A Web of Crime
Organized retail crime has moved away from corner stores and flea markets and onto the Internet, especially since the pandemic’s beginning. It’s quick and easy — and anonymous — for crime rings to move products.
Boosters, who tend to be drug addicts targeted by criminals, steal the goods from retailers and sell the merchandise for about 5 to 10 percent of the retail value. The buyer is the criminal middle man, called a fence, who then sells the items to a larger distributor — with goods ultimately being sold online for a profit.
Retail investigators are blaming the uptick in thefts on changes in some states’ sentencing laws. For example, in 2014, California lawmakers downgraded the theft of less than $950 worth of goods from a felony to a misdemeanor. Effective October 1, 2019, Florida increased the felony theft threshold to $750.
Retailers such as CVS, Home Depot, Target Corp., Ulta Beauty Inc., and TJX Cos. (which includes T.J.Maxx and Marshalls) have bulked up theft-investigation resources.
According to estimates, organized retail theft accounts for about $45 billion in annual losses for retailers, up from $30 billion a decade ago.
An Outlet for Criminals
Further complicating this battle against rampant theft is Amazon, which investigators and law enforcement officials say is one of the most prominent outlets for criminals to sell their stolen goods.
Investigators struggle to obtain information about illicit vendors from Amazon, which generally declines to provide information about sellers without a subpoena or other legal action.
Many retailers have pressed for legislation that requires e-commerce sites to verify details for third-party sellers and make certain information public, thus making it more difficult for crime rings to deal in stolen goods.
Amazon and eBay have lobbied against this legislation, saying it would invade sellers’ privacy.
Multicounty Criminal Schemes
Many stores are targets of multicounty retail theft, in which multiple counties are targets of the same scheme.
In a recent California case, investigators tracked a ring of nearly two dozen boosters for weeks. The group was targeting CVS stores and stealing up to $39,000 a day in merchandise. The operation’s leaders were found to have been running a $30 million racket and had sold about $5 million a year in stolen goods on Amazon or to other Amazon sellers.
Types of multicounty crimes include:
- Money laundering
- Drug distribution
- Weapon/firearm distribution
Multicounty Arrests and Statewide Prosecution
Someone who is involved in a theft crime ring across several counties in Florida faces statewide prosecution. In this case, the Florida attorney general is the prosecutor.
Along with the charges of theft or racketeering, conspiracy may be added depending on the number of people involved in the ring.
In these kinds of multicounty prosecutions, the state has spent time and money building its case against you; therefore, it tends to seek steeper penalties at trial. Our Tampa Bay-area attorneys have achieved positive outcomes for our clients in state court and downward departures during sentencing.
How the Florida Attorney General May Inflate the Case
The prosecution has one goal — to obtain a guilty verdict. After spending time and money preparing your case, prosecutors will argue for the most substantial punishment possible under state sentencing guidelines.
At trial, the statewide prosecutor may even overstate the case based on inflated evidence and unreliable witnesses.
Multicounty Theft Defense
If you have been charged with or are a subject of a statewide investigation, you need an experienced attorney who can prepare your best defense based on the evidence at hand.
You shouldn’t face steeper penalties because the state prosecutor’s office has abundant resources to build a case against you. Our attorneys at Stechschulte Nell are skilled at questioning and picking apart the evidence against you including how it was obtained.
We are on your side and will work with you closely to ensure that you are prepared for every stage of the trial. Contact us at (813) 280-1244 to review your case with an attorney.
Wall Street Journal article Sept. 1, 2021: Ben Dugan Works for CVS. His Job Is Battling a $45 Billion Crime Spree. By Rebecca Ballhaus and Shalini Ramachandran.