National and state law enforcement agencies on Tuesday announced a taskforce to fight organized retail theft.
"This taskforce was formed because there are significant economic consequences to the American public as a consumer, and secondly, because this type of crime is very prevalent in the South Florida area," said Alysa Erichs, special agent in charge of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Homeland Security Investigations office in Miami.
The task force, which includes ICE, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and multiple police agencies in South Florida, will target the thieves with federal money laundering and cash smuggling laws in many cases, Erichs said. At the state level, Republican Gov. Rick Scott signed a new law this year that boosts potential prison sentences for organized theft to a minimum of 21 months, said Addy Villanueva, who runs the Miami FDLE office.
"Miami, once again, is among the top 10 cities, along with Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago, for organized retail crime activity," said Wifredo Ferrer, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida.
t a news conference Tuesday, authorities displayed about $7,000 in merchandise recovered in a recent bust in Broward County. The stolen items were among the most popular across the country: over-the-counter medicines, razor blades, beauty and hygiene products. Also highly popular are personal electronics, said Ferrer.
"This kind of theft in a store will put a store out of business," said Rich Mellor, vice president of loss prevention at the National Retail Federation.
"You have no idea where it's been refrigerated," added Ferrer. "You have no idea how it's been handled, whether it's been treated, whether the medication or the formula is expired. Just imagine the kind of dangers that you're exposing yourself to because of this type of crime."
Last month, police arrested a Hialeah couple accused of stealing $30,000 worth of goods from Toys "R" Us and Babies "R" Us stores.
"Criminals are beating us at the game at that point, so we have to develop new initiatives," said Mellor.
Criminal tactics run the gamut. One group might use teams of shoplifters to target certain items at multiple stores, later reselling them on the Internet or at a flea market. Others use fake receipts to return items in exchange for gift cards, which they then convert into cash. Still others use legitimate receipts but simply go back to the store, get an identical item, then return it while keeping the original they bought — and then selling it.
The goal of the task force is to marshal law enforcement agencies across South Florida so that criminals cannot use jurisdictional boundaries to their advantage.
"It will be much more difficult for the criminal element to evade the long arm of the law," said Juan Perez, deputy director of the Miami-Dade Police Department.