In retail industry parlance, they’re known as boosters — crews of professional shoplifters who target merchandise to steal for resale or return fraud.
According to the National Retail Federation, organized retail crime is a serious problem for the industry, with a 2018 survey showing that criminal enterprises focused on retail theft and fraud were costing $777,877 per $1 billion in sales.
Seventy-one percent of retailers surveyed said organized retail crime increased in 2018, a third saying it increased significantly.
“Roughly half (48.5 percent) of survey respondents said ORC gangs are exhibiting more aggression than they did the previous year,” the survey report states.
Those aggressive tactics were on display in Kenosha County recently when what police characterized as “a flash mob” of 10 men rushed into the North Face store at Pleasant Prairie Premium Outlets July 1, grabbing armfuls of coats and jackets — an estimated $30,000 in merchandise — before running from the store and fleeing in waiting cars.
The theft, caught on security video, took less than 30 seconds.
Pleasant Prairie Police Chief David Smetana said the department is working with other jurisdictions to identify the 10 men. “We’re looking at them for several other thefts in Pleasant Prairie and elsewhere,” Smetana said.
‘This is a business’
But while the boldness of that theft was attention grabbing — the video spread on social media and has been viewed thousands of times — the tactic isn’t unusual, Smetana said.
“This is not a high school kid coming in and grabbing a pair of tennis shoes. This is a business,” Smetana said of organized retail theft.
Nine in 10 retailers said they had encountered organized retail crime in the last 12 months, according to the National Retail Federation survey. The top targets for theft, according to the survey, are high-end items like designer clothes, designer handbags, top-shelf liquor and cellphones, along with necessities like deodorant, infant formula and razors.
Stolen items are resold, often online on places like Facebook or eBay. Or they are returned for cash. According to the National Retail Federation, more than 8 percent of all returns are estimated to be fraudulent.
Pleasant Prairie Police frequently deal with retail theft both at the outlet mall and at other retailers in the community. In the past, Smetana said, village detectives discovered a retail theft operation that was taking orders on social media, with thieves saying the name of the store they were targeting and asking what merchandise customers would like them to steal.
Smetana said some of those thefts are groups working with “booster bags,” shopping bags lined with material that thwarts security sensors. Those groups often go store to store hitting targeted merchandise.
In 2017, Pleasant Prairie Police arrested a group of people who took nearly $20,000 in merchandise from 16 stores at the outlet mall in one day using booster bags — that group included members from New York and Chicago.
A group similar to the North Face thieves walked into Ulta, 10033 77th St., and — making no attempt to conceal what they were doing — filled bags with dozens of bottles of perfume and cologne. That group was later found to be part of a multi-state operation that became known as the “grab-and-go five,” hitting Ulta stores in Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota.
One of those men was arrested and prosecuted in Kenosha County, and was sentenced to 3 ½ years in prison.
The police chief said that retail theft operations are often part of larger drug operation or gang activity.
Smetana said the North Face theft was clearly part of an organized retail theft operation. “You could see it was well-planned out. They have done their homework. This is their job, this is their career,” he said. “These are professionals.”
North Face is seeking to prosecute those involved in the recent theft if they are identified, Smetana said. Corporate policy of some retailers is not to prosecute shoplifters. “We’re grateful that North Face is taking an aggressive stand on prosecution,” he said.
Anyone with information on the incident should contact village police at 262-694-7353.