State and local law enforcement have held the primary responsibility for investigating and prosecuting organized retail crime. However, as the scope of the crime has increased, so too has the involvement of federal law enforcement. Retail criminals are no longer selling goods simply at local flea markets; rather, they are using interstate transportation routes to move stolen goods, as well as the Internet to sell and ship this merchandise across the country and around the world.
Much like other forms of organized crime, organized retail crime is becoming increasingly transnational. For law enforcement to effectively combat ORC, it must rely on multi-lateral coordination, via domestic and international task forces and partnerships. In addition to expanding multi-lateral law enforcement partnerships, federal law enforcement has partnered with the retail industry and online markets to combat the theft and illicit resale of stolen goods. Law enforcement has generally not had trouble obtaining the needed information to investigate potential cases of ORC.
Here’s a summary of federal law enforcement efforts:
- Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) In December 2003, the FBI established an Organized Retail Theft (ORT) Initiative aimed at identifying and dismantling multi-jurisdictional retail crime rings. This initiative emphasizes information sharing between law enforcement and the private sector in order to investigate ORC and develop a greater understanding of the nature and extent of ORC around the country. The Initiative relies on federal statutes such as the Money Laundering, Interstate Transportation of Stolen Property, and Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) to investigate and prosecute ORC rings. In addition to the Initiative, the FBI leads seven Major Theft Task Forces around the country that are responsible for investigating a host of major theft areas, including ORC.
- U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Because ORC often involves interstate and international transportation of stolen goods and the movement of illicit proceeds associated with the sale of these goods, ICE has become increasingly involved in investigating ORC. Further, ICE may become even more involved in ORC investigations if reports indicating that ORC rings rely on unauthorized (illegal) aliens (particularly from Mexico) to act as boosters are substantiated. Employing these aliens as low-level boosters allow them to earn an income while protecting the higher-ups in the organization from being apprehended while stealing; if apprehended, unauthorized aliens may be jailed and then deported, saving higher-ups from the fines or jail time that they could face if arrested.
- U.S. Secret Service (USSS) The USSS is most well-known for protecting the President and Vice President of the United States, as well as visiting heads of state and government. However, it was originally established as a law enforcement agency charged with investigating and preventing the counterfeiting of U.S currency. The USSS’s authorities have expanded, and the agency now investigates crimes ranging from counterfeiting and financial institution fraud to identity crimes, computer crimes, and money laundering. Through investigations into crimes such as credit card fraud, access device fraud, and computer fraud, the USSS has occasionally become involved in investigating organized retail crime groups who steal or fraudulently purchase merchandise from retailers (through traditional means and online) and then resell these goods for a profit online. The USSS receives ORC case referrals from state and local law enforcement, retail industry investigators, and online marketplaces fighting the sale of stolen goods. The USSS has 31 Electronic Fraud Task Forces and 38 Financial Crimes Task Forces that investigate various financial crimes, including ORC. In addition to state and local law enforcement agencies, these task forces consist of investigators from retail stores, online auction houses, and the banking and finance industries. There are an estimated 100 or more retail investigators participating in the USSS task forces.
- U.S. Postal Inspection Service (USPIS) The USPIS works to prevent mail fraud as well as illegal substances, contraband, and dangerous products from entering the mail system. When investigating cases of ORC, the USPIS investigates individuals using the mail to ship stolen products or to transmit the payment to a seller. These ORC schemes tend to fall into the categories of Internet auction fraud and re-shipper fraud. In cases of Internet auction fraud, the criminals sell stolen goods and ship them domestically and internationally. In cases of re-shipper fraud, criminals may recruit individuals (often unwitting accomplices) to receive the stolen goods and then ship them (often internationally) to other members of the criminal organization or to the buyer of the goods.