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‘Increasingly aggressive’: Legislation aims to deter organized retail crime

At Home Depot, anything that isn’t nailed down or locked up becomes an easy target for a thief trying to make some money by reselling stolen merchandise. Saws and drills are placed behind a locked wire grate, and hammers are tied down with a cable wire.

Employees have seen a rise in the “brazenness” of thieves, said Scott Glenn, vice president of asset protection for Home Depot.

“These individuals are becoming increasingly aggressive, and our associates are threatened every day with knives, guns, Mace, bear spray, stun guns — you name it,” he said.

Home Depot isn’t alone. Stores across the country are experiencing an increase in robberies that can be coupled with violence.

Federal legislators, including three members of Nevada’s delegation, introduced bipartisan legislation this year aiming to deter individuals and groups involved in organized retail theft.

The Combating Organized Retail Crime Act of 2023, introduced by Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, on the Senate side, and Nevada Reps. Dina Titus and Susie Lee, as well as Rep. Dave Joyce, R-Ohio, and Ken Buck, R-Colo., on the House side, would update the law to designate organized retail crime as a federal offense and allow federal judges to order criminal forfeiture of the stolen goods.

The legislation also would establish a center headed by Homeland Security Investigations in which state, local and federal authorities would work together to prosecute the crimes. It also would strengthen money laundering statutes at a federal level to allow investigators and prosecutors to target organized retail crime networks’ illegal proceeds.

‘Difficult to pin down’

On Wednesday, Nevada’s delegates spearheading the bill met with retailers, law enforcement officials and prosecutors at a Las Vegas Home Depot to discuss the rise of organized retail crime and how the legislation could help.

“It is happening, unfortunately, to large-scale retail establishments and small mom-and-pop stores as well,” Cortez Masto said. “It’s time to really give our retailers the support they need, giving law enforcement the tools they need to go after this large-scale organized crime.”

Organized retail crime refers to the coordinated theft of merchandise from people and groups for the purposes of reselling those goods, typically online, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

It is different from “some kid shoplifting a candy bar after school,” Titus said. “This is very organized, very sophisticated, (and) very difficult to pin down.”

Many of those thefts also become violent. According to a 2022 survey from the National Retail Federation, eight out of 10 retailers reported increased incidents of violence and aggression in the last year.

Many young people also work their first jobs in retail, said Scott McBride, the chief global asset protection officer for American Eagle Outfitters Inc., “and then to be faced with this type of criminal activity, they’re not necessarily prepared for it from a maturity perspective, nor can we do enough to train them.”

Cracking down on crime

Since 2020, Homeland Security Investigations saw a 400 percent increase in the number of organized retail crime cases, said Raul Aguilar, deputy assistant director. In the last fiscal year, their investigations resulted in 119 arrests, 71 indictments and $6 million in stolen property recovered, he said.

In Nevada, retail crime cost businesses more than $1 billion in 2021, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Two months ago, the Metropolitan Police Department created a team of eight detectives and a sergeant dedicated to investigating retail theft.

Since then it has recovered $3 million worth of stolen merchandise and has taken down several operations, said Deputy Chief Nick Farese.

In 2023, Nevada legislators passed and Gov. Joe Lombardo signed Assembly Bill 50, which authorizes the attorney general to investigate and prosecute organized retail theft.

Lee told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that the federal legislation would give the state attorney general the resources to be able to prosecute those crimes. If the attorney general finds that a transnational group is involved in a Nevada retail crime, the attorney general could get help from the center established in the legislation.

“It will sort of be additional teeth,” she said.

Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson said he has two prosecutors who handle those fraud cases, but he would like to see more resources and funding to hire more prosecutors. He added that while his role is to punish violators, it is important to deter people from committing the crime in the first place.

“That’s what we need to emphasize by getting the message out that we’re taking these organized thieves seriously, so that hopefully we can deter people from doing this,” Wolfson said.

Contact Jessica Hill at jehill@reviewjournal.com. Follow @jess_hillyeah on Twitter.

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