Organized retail crime: Local criminals on a shopping spree

Supermarkets attempt to fight growing scourge of organized retail crime

By Paul Suarez, Columbian web producer

Published:

 
photoA man identified by Safeway as Rick Clark leaves the Safeway store in downtown Vancouver with $380.92 in whiskey and cognac around 8 p.m. on July 21, 2012. Clark was arrested on suspicion of multiple felony liquor theft charges in Clark County, Safeway said.

()

“John” had Alli diet pills that he needed to sell. He met a 34-year-old Vancouver man on May 22 and told him that he lifted the pills from a Rite Aid store and was chased out by security. The buyer paid and told him he wanted more.

Three days later, the buyer met “John” — not his real name — in the ­Hazel Dell Walmart parking lot where he bought $750 worth of items that were purportedly stolen from retail stores.

The twist: “John” is a private investigator working for Safeway, and the buy was a sting. His name was withheld for his security and to protect ongoing investigations.

That day, Yevgeniy Smirnov was taken into custody. His wife, Lyudmila Smirnov, was detained after detectives and private investigators served a search warrant at the couple’s home where they found “numerous amounts of different merchandise” including Crest White Strips, Rogaine and air fresheners.

These episodes are all detailed in a probable cause affidavit filed by Clark County sheriff’s Detective Tom Yoder that was obtained by The Columbian in July.

The operation was just another chapter in the battle against organized retail crime, a problem that causes stores to lose up to an estimated $30 billion annually in America.

According to the affidavit, the Vancouver couple last reported wages in 2009 but were able to make $75,000 to $103,000 in a few months by selling items on eBay. Police think the two own two houses, one vacant property and a 2010 Lexus, according to the affidavit. They allegedly made their money purchasing stolen items and reselling them online for a profit.

Lyudmila Smirnov told police she and her husband buy items from distributors and stores and that the couple had a business license to sell items through eBay.

The two were booked into the Clark County Jail on suspicion of first-degree trafficking of stolen property and money laundering. Yevgeniy Smirnov was also arrested on suspicion of second-degree possession of stolen property for having the items he bought from in the sting.

The Smirnovs posted $75,000 bail each on May 29. Their trial is set for Dec. 17.

Retailers and police say organized retail crime, the theft of items for financial gain, is a growing problem in Clark County.

The scheme typically involves large-scale thefts from many stores and a fencing operation to sell the goods online and offline, according to the National Retail Federation, a group that represents retailers from the United States and more than 45 other countries, In contrast, shoplifting is usually one person who steals a small amount of items for personal use.

Dan Floyd, regional spokesman for Safeway, says his organization realizes theft is a part of doing business. Organized retail crime is a different matter, he said.

Safeway loses about $100 million from retail crime annually and about $10 million in Oregon and Southwest Washington, Floyd said.

“It is staggering and it is high, but that’s the reality of it right now,” he said. “It’s a growing issue.”

According to a 2012 survey by the National Retail Federation, 96 percent of 125 participating retailers reported being victims of retail crime in the past year. Two-thirds of those surveyed said they’ve seen an increase in organized retail crime, and about 87 percent believe organized retail crime activity has increased in the past three years.

Organized retail crime is not new to Clark County, but store representatives and law enforcement officers think the bad economy caused an uptick in crime.

“Since the economy took a downturn in 2007, theft in the stores has picked up,” Floyd said. That includes all products in all Safeway stores, he said.

Thieves usually target items with high resale value, including razor blades, diapers, baby formula, batteries. whitening strips, alcohol and liquid detergent.

“They’re not going to steal a few cases of gum,” Floyd said. “It’s stuff you need on a daily basis. It’s expensive to purchase in the store.”

Not only is the crime increasing, but thieves are getting more clever, making the issue harder to ignore.

“(Retail crime) is recognized more because the suspects are getting more sophisticated,” Vancouver Police Officer Ilia Botvinnik said.

Some thieves use tools to remove anti-theft devices, switch UPC codes on products, use stolen or cloned credit cards to buy products, or make fake receipts to return products. Some will just load carts full of valuable items and walk out the front door. They’ll frequently use stolen cars as getaway vehicles. Others learn the ins and outs of security measures at different stores, Botvinnik said.

Stores have security personnel who will pursue suspects or regional investigators who are basically private detectives. Some store policies prevent employees from calling 911 or security to report theft, Botvinnik said.

“Bad guys have figured it out and are very brazen about it,” he said.

Usually, thieves will sell or trade items with fencers, who can make thousands of dollars a week selling stolen items, he said. People who do the stealing usually don’t make a lot of money and will sometimes trade items for drugs. Stealing from stores with “easy return policies” and bringing them back for cash is also popular, he said.

Police and retailers started upping their game few years ago to battle the scourge.

Fred Meyer spokeswoman Melinda Merrill said her company is constantly re-evaluating security measures to fight retail crime and keep shoppers safe.

“It’s a constant process of making sure you’re doing everything you can be doing,” she said.

The entire effort to go after organized retail crime has evolved considerably over the past seven or eight years, Floyd said.

Officer Botvinnik started working patrol in the area that includes the Westfield Vancouver mall a few years ago. He got a few shoplifting calls and started working with local loss-prevention people. One of them suggested starting a retail crime ­intelligence group like ones already in place in Oregon.

Botvinnik and a group of local stores started an email contact group to discuss local cases of retail theft. Sometimes stores can help each other identify suspects and can link suspects to theft from different stores. They’ll often send cases to Botvinnik to investigate.

“The bad guys are organized, and we try to keep up with that,” Botvinnik said. “It’s very minimum extra funds (for Vancouver police). It’s not like I need a helicopter and a command post for this. A lot of it is just an improved way of working an investigation.”

Safeway will often gather information to build cases against its repeat offenders.

“If you pop them for stealing $100 in batteries, it’s petty theft,” Safeway spokesman Floyd said. “They’re going to be released (from jail) later that day” and will be back stealing soon after that.

Instead, the store will collect data on suspects and attempt to trace it back to the fencers who are pulling strings and competing directly with stores by selling items. The store has binders full of information on suspects and will combine that with other stores and then take the case to police.

Matt Halpin was a cadet with Portland police before being hired by Fred Meyer about eight years ago as a loss-prevention specialist. He worked his way up to be the organized retail crime investigator for Fred Meyer stores in Oregon and Southwest Washington, a position that was created about four or five years ago in conjunction with increases in retail crime.

Halpin had a case a few months ago in which iPods were stolen from a Vancouver store. After an in-store loss-prevention associate reported the crime to Halpin, he started looking for iPods for sale online and found a seller on Craiglist who he believed had the stolen iPods.

Halpin got in touch with Vancouver police and set up a sting buyback operation near the Vancouver mall. He said he positively identified the serial number of the iPod, bought it with cash and told police, who stopped the suspect’s car. Two individuals were taken into custody. The case was settled out of court, Halpin said.

The crime impacts the community in multiple ways, according to stores and police.

Fencing causes the store to lose the product and a sale, Halpin said.

“A lot of people look at it like ‘Who cares, it’s Macy’s? They have a ton of money,’” Botvinnik said. The theft affects how many employees stores hire and how much sales tax the city collects, he said. “So everybody loses.”

The crime affects the prices of items people buy on a regular basis and need in their lives, Fred Meyer spokeswoman Merrill said.

“Our goal is to stretch your dollar and keep our prices as low as possible,” she said. “It’s a big deal. It affects our consumers, and we know that.”