WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The National Retail Federation's efforts to fight organized retail theft won praise from the FBI during a congressional hearing this week.
"The use of Major Theft Task Forces, coupled with a partnership with the retail industry, is seen by the FBI as one of the most effective and efficient tools by which to identify, disrupt and dismantle organized retail theft enterprises impacting the health, safety and pocketbook of American consumers," said Chris Swecker, assistant director of the FBI's Criminal Investigative Division.
Swecker said one of the FBI's first steps in launching a formal Organized Retail Theft Initiative was the formation in 2004 of the National Retail Federation/FBI Intelligence Network. The network is a partnership between the FBI, state and local law enforcement and retail corporate security to share ORT intelligence, discuss trends and identify and target the most significant ORT enterprises. The network is particularly interested in groups conducting thefts in order to fund or support terrorism, he said.
Swecker also noted NRF's Retail Loss Prevention Intelligence Network Database, which is being created to help retailers and law enforcement share ORT information and intelligence. The FBI is serving on the database committee in an advisory capacity.
Swecker's comments came at a hearing on organized retail theft held Thursday by the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security.
"It's very important that both the FBI and Congress have recognized the seriousness of the threat posed by organized retail theft and are focusing attention on this issue," NRF Vice President for Loss Prevention Joseph LaRocca said today in response to the FBI comments. "Organized retail theft isn't petty shoplifting ' it's organized crime and it has to be stopped."
Also testifying at Thursday's hearing was Chris Nelson, director of assets protection at NRF member company Target Corp. NRF is a member of the Coalition Against Organized Retail Theft, and arranged for Nelson to testify on behalf of the coalition.
"Organized retail theft is a growing problem throughout the United States affecting many sectors of the retail community from supermarkets and chain drug stores to mass merchandisers and specialty stores," Nelson said. "It is clearly the most pressing security problem facing our industry."
Organized theft accounts for $30 billion in annual store-level losses, according to FBI numbers, and Nelson said items targeted for theft range from low-cost goods like razor blades or batteries to high-end consumer electronics and designer clothing. Merchandise is stolen in large quantities, then fenced through other criminals or resold at venues ranging from flea markets to the Internet. Particularly disturbing is the theft of products like infant formula or over-the-counter medications, which can pose a consumer health and safety threat if not stored properly or when labels are changed to extend expiration dates, he said.
Nelson called on Congress to pass legislation making organized retail theft a federal crime, saying the lack of a federal statute often leaves major cases to be prosecuted under state shoplifting laws that treat such crimes as a petty misdemeanor. The federal government should create and fund a national database on organized theft and prohibit sale of items such as infant formula or over-the-counter medications by flea markets or transient vendors, he said.
Organized theft would have been made a federal felony with prison terms up to 10 years under legislation introduced in 2003 by Senator Larry Craig, R-Idaho, and endorsed by the ORT coalition. The bill saw no action before the 2003-2004 session of Congress ended, but a similar measure is expected to be reintroduced during the current session.