Statewide Taskforce to Tackling Organized Retail Crime Networks

Statewide Taskforce to Tackling Organized Retail Crime Networks

The group brings together law enforcement, prosecutors and retailers to combat the growing problem

State Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced Thursday, June 23, the creation of a statewide Organized Retail Crime Task Force.

The task force will improve coordination and collaboration among law enforcement agencies to address these multi-jurisdictional crimes that endanger employees and cause significant economic harm to our state, according to a press release from the Attorney General’s Office General of the State.

The task force will focus on sophisticated organized crime groups that account for nearly $70 billion in retail losses nationwide.

The task force is the first of its kind in Washington, according to the news release. Nine other states have a dedicated organized retail crime task force.

An analysis by the Retail Industry Leaders Association estimates that Washington retailers lost $2.7 billion to organized retail crime in 2021. Federal crime statistics show that the value of items stolen from Washington retailers increased by 151% between 2019 and 2020.

The first meeting of the working group will be on July 7. Ferguson has pledged to hold quarterly meetings for at least a year.

“Coordination is key to combating this growing, and sometimes dangerous, problem,” Ferguson said. “These organized crimes cross jurisdictions and cause significant economic harm. I am committed to working together with law enforcement and retail partners to help combat this significant and growing problem.”

Organized retail crime involves a group of individuals who steal products not for personal use, but to resell them for a profit. This does not include general retail crimes such as petty theft, theft or poverty-motivated crimes.

According to the Department of Homeland Security, the robberies the task force will focus on are typically perpetrated by sophisticated criminal organizations and may involve threats to store personnel and the public, according to the news release.

Often, but not always, these stolen goods are sold on online marketplaces.

Organized retail crime differs from theft and robbery, such as shoplifting, because it is not the result of a single individual breaking the law, but is part of an organized scheme to defraud or steal from retailers products for resale elsewhere. Organized crime can lead to intimidation and violence for the employees of these stores.

Even before the recent and well-publicized national shortage, baby formula accounted for 13 percent of the most shoplifted items, according to the National Retail Foundation’s 2020 Organized Retail Crime Survey. Stolen formula may appear for sale in online marketplaces.

According to the press release, parents who buy stolen formula on the secondary market may be putting their babies at significant risk if the thieves did not store it at the proper temperature. Also, thieves may have tampered with the packaging, such as changing expiration dates.

Legal cannabis retailers in Washington are another example. The state’s Liquor and Cannabis Board has reported more than just thefts at retail marijuana stores in the first three months of this year.

These incidents can be dangerous and traumatic for employees. For example, in March, a suspect took an employee hostage before being shot by store security.

In a robbery in Bellevue, police chased three suspects through a South Seattle neighborhood. Two suspects surrendered, but the third confronted police before opening fire and eventually being killed by officers.

The task force will bring together prosecutors and retailers from across the state with local, state and federal law enforcement representatives, including FBI and US Attorneys Nick Brown and Vanessa Waldref. The task force will also include the Port of Seattle, small business representatives and labor representatives.

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Jennifer Ahdout

Jennifer Ahdout

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