Organized retail crime costs retailers billions of dollars. In an era, where retailers are closing stores or going completely out of business, it's logical to assume that organized retail crime is a contributing factor to retailers shutting their doors and people losing their jobs. With the sour economy inspiring more and more theft and fraud, it is becoming more critical than ever before for companies to control their losses in their struggle to remain viable.
When retailers lose money to theft, the end result can be (assuming they don't go bankrupt) that jobs are cut. Payroll is normally the largest and most controllable expense in any business. When businesses start to show negative earnings — like a lot of them are right now — payroll is normally the first place they look to cut when trying to avoid shutting their doors.
In an effort to fight what experts say is a $30 billion a year organized retail crime issue, the National Retail Federation is welcoming legislation being introduced to give them more tools to fight this problem. Yesterday, three bills were introduced in Congress to assist retailers and law enforcement in this effort.
The three bills introduced are "the Combating Organized Retail Crime Act of 2009, sponsored by Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill.; the Organized Retail Crime Act of 2009, sponsored by Representative Brad Ellsworth, D-Ind.; and the E-Fencing Enforcement Act of 2009, sponsored by House Judiciary Committee Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security Subcommittee Chairman Bobby Scott, D-Va. The measures are similar to legislation first introduced last summer" according to the press release and podcast on this matter by the National Retail Federation.
In case you are unfamiliar with "Organized Retail Crime," it involves organized retail theft activity for profit. Once the merchandise is stolen, it is fenced (sold) to get a cash value out of it. Traditionally, this merchandise was sold at flea markets/dishonest retailers, but more and more often nowadays, retail crime rings are turning to auction sites to unload their stolen goods. The reason for this is if they sell it on an auction site, they make a lot more money than in the more traditional fencing venues. Experts believe they net 70 percent of the retail value by selling their stolen wares on an auction site.
Another possible factor contributing the problem is that consumers — who are operating with ever-decreasing personal budgets — are flocking to these sites to stretch their buying dollars. Without knowing it, they might be adding fuel to the fire and unknowingly buying this stolen merchandise.
Even if the retailer can prove that merchandise on an auction site is stolen, it can be extremely difficult for them to get the site to cooperate in going after the criminals selling it. Due to a lot of red-tape imposed by these sites to release information, it requires a lot of time/effort to get the site to cooperate in an investigation. Because of this, the crooks are normally long gone before any effective investigative action is taken.
Another phenomenon called phishing makes the activity even more anonymous/hard to track on auction sites. Phishing is where a person (user) is tricked into giving up their credentials to an account. For years, eBay and PayPal have ranked as some of the most phished brands out there. Criminals use this information to take over an account and commit fraud using someone else's selling account. When investigating auction fraud, time is of the essence, otherwise the trail is often too cold to track. The crooks use one of these accounts for a short period of time and then move on to another phished account to avoid detection.
Organized retail crime is also taking advantage of the identity theft/financial crimes phenomenon and working with the hacking element that has been attacking the financial industry. Counterfeit payment cards (credit/debit), checks and identification are all being used to electronically boost merchandise and walk right out the store with it. In the TJX data breach — which was the largest hack of financial data to date — a group was caught using cloned payment cards to buy $8 million worth gift cards from Walmart. In the more recent data breach at Heartland Payment Systems — which looks like it might surpass TJX in the amount of data stolen — the only arrests made thus far were a group using the stolen data to clone gift cards. Since gift cards are redeemed at retailers, this is yet another example of how the financial hackers and organized retail crime types are working together. To me, this is evidence that organized retail crime is becoming more sophisticated in their theft techniques, which will likely make this problem get even worse than it already is.
The three bills being introduced will force auction sites to cooperate with retailers and law enforcement, define organized criminal activity as a federal offense and establish stricter sentencing guidelines for criminals convicted of organized retail crime. Too frequently, under current laws, criminals involved in this activity are treated like petty thieves and get a slap on this wrist when they are caught. Last, but not least, it will hold auction sites more accountable for the sale of stolen merchandise if it could have been prevented.
Besides fencing, there is a lot of other fraud on auction sites that isn't necessarily tied in to fencing and victimizes auction customers/sellers, more personally. Legitimate e-commerce sellers are frequently ripped off with bogus financial instruments. Buyers are also defrauded in a wide variety of scams on these sites. Like the major retail types, who are behind this legislation, the more ordinary victims are often hung out to dry when they try to get any assistance from the auction sites. There is little doubt (my opinion) that auction sites need to clean up all the fraud that occurs on them. While they do provide value and a fun way to buy things, there have been too many innocent people victimized on them.
While this legislation primarily focuses on fencing, it's a start in the right direction. Perhaps other groups should join in and support this legislation, which if passed, will likely set some needed legal precedents. It will also make it a little harder for the criminally inclined to operate on auction sites.
Supporting this legislation makes a lot of sense for a lot of different reasons. These are not victimless crimes and the consequences are being felt by innocent consumers and businesses.