I-Team: Thieves Cost Retailers, Shoppers Millions - 8 News NOW

I-Team: Thieves Cost Retailers, Shoppers Millions

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  • I-Team: Police Bust Swap Meet Vendors

    I-Team: Police Bust Swap Meet Vendors

    Friday, October 4 2013 10:11 PM EDT2013-10-05 02:11:16 GMT
    LAS VEGAS -- Half a dozen vendors working at the largest outdoor swap meet are facing felony charges after being busted by a law enforcement task force. The lawmen raided the Broadacres Marketplace, lookingMore>>
    Half a dozen vendors working at the largest outdoor swap meet are facing felony charges after being busted by a law enforcement task force. The lawmen raided the Broadacres Marketplace, looking for vendors who might be selling stolen property and they had no shortage of suspects.More>>

LAS VEGAS -- The mob is long gone from Nevada, but organized crime is alive and well, according to law enforcement. Nationally, organized theft rings are responsible for stealing an estimated $30 to 40 billion worth of merchandise each year.

For a long time, Las Vegas ranked in the top 10 of cities hit hardest by organized crime rings, but Nevada retailers are fighting back, and lawmen are mobilizing.

If you have ever wondered why stores keep razor blades under lock and key or why a pair of jeans costs $55, the answer is theft. The millions of dollars stolen locally translates into thousands of jobs that were not created. It's estimated that the state loses about $20 million  per year in ungenerated sales tax revenue because of these increasingly sophisticated theft rings that have ties to much larger criminal enterprises, including drug cartels and terror networks.

A crackdown that started a few weeks ago at a local swap meet is a hint that retailers and lawmen have had enough. Each weekend, the wildly popular Broadacres swap meet is a sea of stuff, with thousands of vendors selling all kinds of things. There are great deals on new bottles of brand name shampoo and toiletries, laundry detergent, diapers, cereal, salad dressing and even cans of paint.

Most Common Stolen Items Targeted by Gangs

"You have to ask yourself, where do these folks get these items from? They are obviously not retailers? So how do they get it for a price you can't get in any store in the valley?" Metro Police Sgt. Will Seifert said.

He said a lot of the items are stolen. A month ago, Seifert's multi-agency task force raided a swap meet and arrested six vendors for selling stolen property. But the bust didn't seem to have much of a deterrent effect. The same suspicious merchandise was brazenly for sale last weekend by dozens of vendors.

An online version of the swap meet sells even more stolen goods, 24-7. Social media sites are a dream come true for crooks who fence pilfered property. Theft by organized criminal rings amounts to $40 billion per year nationally, millions locally.

National Retail Federation Survey on Organized Retail Crime 

"Not to say it's the mafia. I would say it's mafia-ish. The numbers are pretty large," said Bryan Wachter with the Nevada Retail Association.

He said 96 percent of Nevada retailers have been hit by organized theft rings.

"We're finding things are more sophisticated. We're talking bar code manipulation and receipt manufacturing and all of this. It's an evolution of what used to be two or three folks who would come into a store and scope out security while others are just trying to steal as much as they possibly can," he said.

The ringleaders give shopping lists to their army of thieves, telling them what to steal.

"They have grocery lists. We need razor blades. We need 10 bottles of formula this month," Wachter said.

They're not only more brazen, but more violent. Security camera videos from around the country show that many thieves don't even try to hide their crimes. They just walk out with the goods. When confronted, they fight back with fists, knives, and guns.  A Metro officer who tried to apprehend a credit card thief was shot.

A major change has been implemented in recent years, but the stores don't like to admit it publicly. Many of the big chains now have standing orders for employees to not try to stop the thieves. The crime rings know it, and have grown even bolder.

"Twenty percent of the folks that are apprehended tend to be violent so we don't want that kind of violent occurrence to happen in our stores," Wachter said.

Of the 100 or more suspects busted by Metro Police this year, most had other criminal histories.

"We are talking about robberies, assaults with deadly weapons, gang ties, this is all in their prior history," Seifert said.

It's not just retailers who are victimized. Trucks and warehouses are targeted too. Metro patrols warehouse areas but is stretched thin.

"They just smash in a window or kick in a door. We have seen it where they drive vehicles right through the roll-up doors," Metro Police Sgt. Dan Newberry said.

Retailers don't want customers or employees to get shot, but they haven't given up. Stores have invested heavily in surveillance systems that help identify the criminals. There's even a private crime lab locally, created to back up Metro. It's almost a certainty that Metro will return to the swap meet to deal with the vendors.

Ultimately, the way to stop the theft is for consumers to quit buying suspicious goods.

"When you look to buy at a swap meet or online, you have to figure it comes from somewhere. An unopened bottle of Tide or clothes with the price tag still on, they are coming from retailers," Wachter said.

Police have been talking to the owner of the swap meet but they realize it's pretty tough to figure out how each vendor acquired the items they put up for sale. Honest vendors are also victimized because they have to compete against thieves who sell new, stolen merchandise at bargain prices.

Las Vegas is no longer in the top 10 cities victimized by organized crime rings but the stores still lose millions each year to the thieves.

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