Organized retail theft grows as pandemic created online marketplace for stolen goods

FBI photo of theft at a CVS pharmacy. A bill allowing prosecutors to aggregate the value of multiple thefts in order to cross the felony threshhold did not proceed in the Vermont Legislature.

by the Vermont Chamber of Commerce

Nationwide, stores are closing locations due to rising crime. According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, organized retail theft is now costing businesses $700,000 per billion in sales. If organized retail theft has impacted your business and you have insight to share, please email govaffairs@vtchamber.com.

Throughout the past year, the Vermont Chamber has heard from businesses experiencing the rise in retail theft, and we have been comparing the policy changes in other states aimed at addressing this issue, which could be blueprints for Vermont to follow in the coming years.

In a recent panel discussion, Summer Stephan, the San Diego County District Attorney, said this problem has been on the rise during the pandemic due to increased online purchasing, which has driven a demand for stolen goods to online marketplaces. Shannon Penberthy, VP of Federal Gov Affairs for CVS Health, reports that organized retail theft occurs every three minutes in their stores.

Pandemic court backlogs create delays in prosecution, and result in defendants being released on bail in the interim, emboldening repeat offenders free to commit repeat thefts. Some district attorneys, including in Chittenden County, have been public about their criminal justice reform efforts and released lists of crimes they will not prioritize for prosecution. Some organized retail theft rings have used these as playbooks for what they know they can get away with. According to Stephan, consistent enforcement and prosecution creates a no-tolerance culture for would-be thieves.

Vermont retailers report habitual thieves calculating the value of goods before stealing to ensure they remain under the threshold for felonies. Recent reforms have been passed in Illinois and Florida to aggregate thefts, and while a similar bill was introduced this past session in Vermont, it did not make it to final passage. Other reforms could include differentiating between first-time and repeat offenders in release conditions, bail, and sentencing.

In a recent forum hosted by the Lake Champlain Chamber of Commerce, the two candidates for Chittenden County State’s Attorney offered their own visions for how these crimes would be handled. [Editor’s note: both candidates suggested programs to reimburse store owners from alternate sources, including possibly taxpayers, in lieu of restitution from the thieves themselves, who often declare indigence.]

What, if anything, can business owners do now? Stephan’s advice to businesses was to not give up, keep reporting these thefts to police, and invest in cameras so that police can do their investigations and eventually bring justice. Report with as much detail as possible what merchandise was stolen, and what the value of that merchandise was, so officers can trace the goods, find out where they are sold, and sever the relationships to eliminate the demand for the stolen goods. CVS has implemented various procedures to limit access to high-value products, such as locking items in cases or placing items further from the door or closer to cameras or staff to monitor it more closely. Finally, some businesses have joined local or state retail theft task forces to advocate for change, share best practices, and address the problem on the ground as much as possible.

Categories: Legislation

2 replies »

  1. The solution to this problem in Chittenden County is for a large number of decent, honest people of all political affiliations to vote in the August primary using a democrat ballot and check the box for Ted Kenney for State’s Attorney. Sarah George must go!

  2. We need to rethink our visa waiver program to determine which EU countries we allow citizens to freely come and go. This article fails to detail any specifics on those responsible except to loosely use the term “organized crime”.
    We have an uptick in Romani gypsy theft rings who come here (to the US) very briefly to steal and fence as much product as possible before they leave for a “cooling period”. They rent multiple vehicles and drive cross- country, making it very difficult to track the full scope of a particular individual’s activity as investigators have to rely on poor security camera footage and partial plate data. If identity can be established, the individuals visa can be revoked but in many cases they come back in through the porous southern border or claim “asylum”. In any case, there is no shortage of new Romani gypsies for the “organization” to send over. Even when local PDs can make a real-time arrest, they are quickly released under a bail program then never show up to court.
    Until there are changes to immigration policy and a return to law and order at the border and in our courts, this will only increase, as retailers have already factored the cost of their losses and comprehensive insurance premiums into OUR product prices.

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