The stats are alarming: Congress must act to curb retail crime

Associated Press/Teresa Crawford
Workers board up a display window at the Louis Vuitton store in Chicago on Aug. 10, 2020, after overnight vandals hit many high-end stores. Smash and grab robberies are a growing problem for the retail industry.

The groundswell of organized retail crime is a national issue that risks spreading local law enforcement thin. While the American public sees headlines of smash-and-grab robberies or watches shock-inducing footage of their favorite retailers left ransacked and wrecked, it’s our local police forces that are left to pick up the pieces.

Almost 70 percent of storefronts have reported an increase in theft this past year, and the Coalition of Law Enforcement and Retail estimates that organized retail crime accounts for $45 billion in annual retail losses. In one instance alone in February 2021, a group brazenly grabbed handbags worth $165,000 from the shelves of a Chanel store in New York in a daytime robbery. 

Why the sudden spike in crime sprees over the past couple of years? Historically, organized retail crime tends to increase in challenging times. According to U.S. court statistics, retail theft skyrocketed by 16 percent after 9/11 and by 30 percent during the 2008 recession. It’s no surprise that we are seeing a similar, albeit accelerated, trend amid the protracted pandemic and crippling inflation.

But what makes this current organized retail crime wave more pervasive and problematic than ever is where these stolen goods may end up once they are swiped from store shelves. Gone are the days of pawning stolen merchandise on street corners and flea markets; criminals are turning to the anonymity of the internet to peddle their loot. Stolen items are showing up on the virtual marketplaces that consumers traffic on a daily basis, seamlessly fitting in with honest online storefronts and businesses.

It has become increasingly taxing for law enforcement units to keep up with the surge of organized retail crime endangering retail employees and consumers alike. Staffing shortages, budget cuts, and a sweeping rise in violent crime — which the FBI estimates to have jumped 5.6 percent in 2020 — are all to blame. Police may be physically overwhelmed with chasing, mitigating and arresting thieves, shooters and murderers in many U.S. cities. There are simply not enough resources for these precincts to additionally allocate to monitoring the vast entirety of the internet.

That’s why federal legislation such as the Integrity, Notification, and Fairness in Online Retail Marketplaces for Consumers, or INFORM Consumers Act (H.R. 5502), could be a valuable and essential tool. It’s the least Congress can do to support law enforcement online as they continue to work to combat organized retail crime. The bill requires online marketplaces to clearly disclose contact information of certain high-volume, third-party sellers to consumers and provide consumers with ways to report suspicious marketplace activity. The Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general would have authority to enforce the requirements.

This means that passing the INFORM Consumers Act would empower online marketplaces to become better partners in tracking and identifying retail theft rings by building a more transparent and accountable online ecosystem that benefits retailers, consumers and law enforcement alike. The bill has gained support from law enforcement.

The bottom line is that the rise in organized retail crime is a national issue that must be met with a national solution. Local police departments simply don’t have the time or resources to wait for the inconsistent variety of state legislative attempts to curb criminal activity. 

Congress must ensure that H.R. 5502 — a bipartisan bill also supported by both the e-commerce and retail industries — is included in the final Bipartisan Innovation Act currently being negotiated by House and Senate conferees. This would be a critical step toward universally helping law enforcement do what they do best: keeping communities safe.

Richard Marianos, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University, is a senior law enforcement consultant, having served more than 27 years with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. He was assistant director in the Office of Public and Governmental Affairs and Special Agent in Charge of ATF’s Washington Field Division.  

Tags Online marketplace retail theft rising crime smash and grab

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