Returning an unwanted item at a local store is nothing more than a routine errand for most people. In fact, this type of transaction is so common that many retailers have established a specific area within their store staffed with employees whose only job is to handle returns. Recently, detectives assigned to the Sheriff's Office Tactical Apprehension and Control Unit (T.A.C.) identified and arrested an organized group of suspects who had engaged in a highly profitable scheme that stretched across the State of Florida involving fraudulent merchandise returns.
The investigation began in October of 2005, when a detective met with the loss prevention manager at a local home improvement store to discuss a series of questionable refunds. Store records indicated that one person had returned a specific type of merchandise without a receipt on several different dates, and on each of those dates he had done so at several different stores around the Tampa Bay area. Because the suspect did not have a receipt for the merchandise being returned, the store did not offer cash, instead a merchandise card, similar to a gift card, was issued as a refund. It was also apparent to the loss prevention expert that the merchandise being returned had been stolen.
The investigation revealed that the suspect would obtain small, but expensive merchandise by shoplifting. It also became obvious that other suspects were involved in the theft of merchandise, which was then returned to the store, sometimes within minutes of the theft. Detectives determined that the group was operating nearly statewide "working" their way to specific stores as far away as Jacksonville and Miami while perpetrating their crimes at other stores along the way. The suspects would then "work" their way back to the Tampa Bay area, hitting as many as ten stores in a single day.
Surveillance revealed that the suspects were converting the fraudulently obtained merchandise cards for about half their value by approaching customers as they were about to enter the store. The suspects were also known to search a store parking lot for discarded receipts. When located, a receipt would serve as a shopping list of sorts, and if possible the suspects would target items on the receipt, which they could then return for full value in cash.
With the assistance of a statewide prosecutor, Sheriff's TAC detectives were able to develop probable cause for the arrest of 11 suspects linked to this group of thieves. It was estimated that before their arrests the suspects in this case stole between $150,000 and $500,000 over the course of a year from one large home improvement chain alone.
This is just one of many organized groups around the state who actually "steal for a living". Here are a couple of tips that can help prevent you and your favorite retailer from becoming the victims of these creative thieves. Sales receipts that are no longer needed should be shredded or properly discarded. Additionally, you should never purchase a merchandise card or gift card from a stranger who approaches you in a parking lot or other public area. Finally, report any suspicious activity inside the store to the retailer, like persons re-packaging or hiding merchandise or changing price stickers.
It is believed that more than $10 billion worth of goods are stolen from retailers each year in America. These costs are eventually passed on to the consumer through higher costs for goods and services in every community across the country.
Therefore, I encourage you to help retailers in their efforts to reduce the opportunities for shoplifting to occur, and to remove the opportunity for thieves to profit at your expense.
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