Miami may not be the worst city in the nation for "organized retail crime" -- that dubious distinction belongs to Los Angeles -- but the problem has gotten so big that South Florida authorities Tuesday announced a new task force with the goal of containing it.
Retail theft, estimated to run as high as $30 billion a year nationwide, has spread widely as thieves have become part of criminal networks that move stolen goods through flea markets, on the Internet and overseas. More than 90 percent of America's retailers have reported being victims of "ORC."
"We're not speaking about your simple onesy-twosy shoplifter," Alysa Erichs, special agent in charge of Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations, told reporters at a press conference. "These are individuals known as 'boosters' who are essentially professional thieves.
"They work at the bottom rung of criminal organizations and are responsible for collecting as much stolen merchandise as possible in a day for resale at a later time," added Erichs, who stood in front of a table of recently seized over-the-counter drugs and beauty aids worth $7,000.
U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer said that Miami's reputation as the "gateway to the Americas" cuts two ways: it's good for business, but also for thieves, pointing out the region ranks fourth in the country for organized retail crime, behind L.A., New York and Chicago.
Ferrer said "that title can lend itself to being abused" with the trading of stolen merchandise.
He said thieves can range from a Hialeah couple recently busted for the theft of more than $30,000 in goods from Toys R Us stores to violent regional gangs to Eastern European syndicates. He said the aim of the new task force is to "help stop the tide" and coordinate criminal prosecutions between his office and the Miami-Dade state attorney's office.
The federal law enforcement officials were joined by representatives of others involved in the task force, including the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Miami-Dade Police Department, Broward Sheriff's Office and Doral Police Department.
Doral Police Chief Richard Blom, who started his career as a city of Miami beat cop in the 1970s, said in those days law enforcement "relied on the community" to catch store thieves. "Today, we have a new partnership," he said.
A representative of the National Retail Federation, a trade group consisting of 3.6 million U.S. businesses with 42 million workers, said thieves mainly steal over-the-counter drugs, health products and electronics. Rich Mellor, vice president of NRF's loss prevention section, said the group's surveys show that the use of violence to carry out organized store thefts has escalated in recent years.
Mellor also said that crime networks are so brazen that they are increasingly returning stolen merchandise to stores in exchange for debit gift cards that are eventually sold over the Internet.
"This [task force] is the only way we're going to beat it," Mellor said.
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