One of the least-discussed yet fastest-growing threats to workplace and consumer safety is organized retail crime. On the surface, organized retail crime looks like shoplifting, and in many cases it is treated legally like shoplifting. But the difference is that, instead of one individual engaging in isolated acts of petty theft, organized retail crime is strategic and significant theft, orchestrated by sophisticated and coordinated crime syndicates.
And it’s happening every day in every city in Nevada and across the country.
Organized retail crime is not going away, and government inaction is allowing this black market to grow, putting Nevadans in harm’s way. The harm comes in a few different forms.
First, such crime is driving up the cost of goods when businesses must raise prices to offset this increasing level of theft. Second, the people engaging in this activity are experienced and organized, and they are in stores, working as teams, to distract employees and move merchandise.
While most retailers discourage employees from engaging directly, employees are likely unknowingly interacting with these individuals. And if an employee asks the wrong question or looks the wrong way, they are at risk of being attacked by someone engaging in the theft.
Finally, consumers are put at risk when not just stolen merchandise but, especially, counterfeit merchandise is sold anywhere from garage sales to online marketplaces.
Organized retail crime is not unique to Nevada, but there are things that our government can and should be doing to counter this growing trend.
Last year the Legislature declined to enact legislation that would have increased transparency in online marketplaces. The pandemic accelerated online commerce, which, in turn, brought more crime to the internet. Retailers reported a more than 20 percent increase in fraud using multichannel sales between 2020 and 2021, where products were purchased online with a stolen credit card and picked up in store before the charges were contested, according to the National Retail Federation.
These stolen goods were then flooded into online marketplaces as consumers searched the internet for the best “deals” while many stores were still limiting in-person shopping. By requiring large-volume sellers to disclose their business information, customers can know exactly from whom they’re purchasing, and law enforcement can follow up on reports of stolen, dangerous or illegal products being listed online.
Over the past two years, federal and local law enforcement have made several high-profile busts of stockpiles of stolen goods throughout Nevada. But that is scratching only the surface of the problem. The stolen products are kept in storage units and warehouses — and law enforcement even recovered more than $1 million in stolen goods from an unassuming house in a nice neighborhood in Las Vegas. Law enforcement is doing what it can with the resources it has, but it’s not enough.
Las Vegas is in the top 10 U.S. cities most affected by organized retail crime, and the crime syndicates running this racket are the same groups engaged in human, drug and gun trafficking as well as terrorism. Our state and local governments need to make more funding available for investigating and prosecuting organized retail crime as well as aggressively pursue federal grants.
The missing piece to this puzzle is the government’s response to prosecution. There are laws on the books, and our local, state and federal law enforcement officials are doing the investigations. But until our elected district attorneys and our appointed U.S. attorneys start prosecuting these cases like organized crime and not like petty theft, this problem will continue to grow and keep our communities at risk.
The masterminds behind organized crime understand the laws better than the people who created them or enforce them, and they know how to get charges reduced and even dropped by hiding in the gray areas of our shoplifting laws. Our prosecutors need to look past the shoplifting and petty theft and learn from all of the cases that have been used to get to the core of organized crime.
Our government’s response to organized retail crime has not been organized or sophisticated, and until our lawmakers, law enforcement and criminal prosecutors are smarter than the criminals, this will continue to be a growing safety risk for the consumers purchasing from the marketplace and the employees on the frontlines of the battle over stolen goods. The “mob” is still alive and well, and the criminals behind the organized crime are adapting to new technologies faster than our government can keep up.
Bryan Wachter is senior vice president of the Retail Association of Nevada.