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LA Police Arrest 18 as Criminals Strike Stores Coast to Coast

The rash of smash-and-grab robberies that have been plaguing retail in unprecedented numbers ever since the pandemic is getting even worse as the holiday season kicks into high gear.

On Sunday, the Los Angeles Police Department arrested 18 people, ranging in age from 15 to 20 as part of what law enforcement is calling an organized retail theft ring that officials suspect may have pulled off at least 15 heists totaling more than $100,000 in stolen merchandise.

The West Coast has been hit particularly hard by this conspicuously brazen brand of thievery.

On Black Friday, an REI in Portland’s upscale Pearl District was robbed after a car drove through the storefront, marking the third time in a month that store had been hit. No one was injured in the ‘crash-and-grab’ as the outdoor gear co-op was holding an “Opt Outside” day as an alternative to consumption-focused Black Friday.

On Wednesday, a mom-and-pop, high-end shoe store near Long Beach, Calif. was victimized for $100,000 in merchandise in similar smash-and-grab style.

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These crimes not only cause financial harm to business owners, and potential physical danger to their employees and customers, but the incurred losses also force retailers to raise prices in a marketplace already staggered by decades-high inflation.

“If companies can’t increase their costs to cover the cost of the theft, if they’re not making a profit, then they’re going to go out of business,” Andrew Puzder, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, told Fox News.

Shrink—or the loss of inventory, usually due to theft of some kind—has always been part of any retailer’s expense formula, but the problem appears to be escalating.

The National Retail Federation (NRF) reported that stores lost $94.5 billion to ‘shrink’ in 2021 and the amount of theft considered to be Organized Retail Crime (ORC) was up 26.5 percent year over. Those numbers figure to be topped once 2022 numbers are revealed.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in September, said 46 percent of small businesses say they have had to raise prices due to shoplifting and 53 percent say shoplifting is worse during the holiday shopping season.

“Retail theft is not a victimless crime, and its increasing prevalence means greater danger for store employees and higher costs for law-abiding Americans,” said Neil Bradley, executive vice president and chief policy officer at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, adding that retail theft costs to business are up 50 percent over the past five years.

Retail robbery, seldom considered a top priority to most police forces, costs affected businesses an average of $828 per incident in 2019, but in 2020 that average loss soared to $7,594, according to the NRF’s 2021 survey.

Though some believe there’s little appetite on the part of police and prosecutors to pursue retail criminals, even in ‘woke’ Seattle, law enforcement has made double the number of arrests it did in 2021 and the Washington state legislature is currently weighing the creation of an Organized Retail Crime Task Force.

“It’s important to send a message that this type of behavior won’t be tolerated, but also that we hear businesses and collectively will take action on it,” Casey McNerthney with the King County Prosecutors Office told king5.com.

Last month, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 331, the expansion of the Highway Patrol’s Organized Crime Task Force, promising nearly $300 million in resources to help fight smash-and-grab attempts.

“Californians deserve to feel safe especially as they head to stores this holiday season,” Newsom said. “We’ve doubled down on our efforts to combat crime with millions of dollars to deter, arrest and successfully prosecute criminals involved in organized retail theft. This year, shopping centers across California will see saturated patrols as CHP regional teams work with local law enforcement agencies to help make arrests and recover stolen merchandise.”

In addition, California passed SB 301, which would make it more difficult for those who successfully steal retail items to sell them online.

The bill requires online marketplaces starting July 1, 2023, “to require a high-volume third-party seller on the online marketplace’s platform… to provide to the online marketplace specified information, including certain contact information and a bank account number or, if the seller does not have a bank account, the name of the payee for payments issued by the online marketplace to the seller, as prescribed,” said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley).

Bradley, with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said laws like the California measure are vital to solving the retail crime problem.

“It is incumbent upon lawmakers to make changes, including passing legislation to stop the sale of stolen goods on online marketplaces, updating the definition of organized retail crime, and increasing criminal penalties, and prosecuting these criminals for their actions,” Bradley said.

Smash-and-grab crime rings first began dominating headlines during the height of the pandemic shutdowns when social distancing restrictions made high-end retail shops, especially in northern California, easy targets with streets largely deserted. But as restrictions let up and then released, the idea has spread around the country.

One city that seems to be especially hit hard by these crimes is Memphis, Tenn., where in November, Valid Kixx, a shoe retailer with storefronts in Racine, Wisc. and Memphis, was victimized as an estimated 25 looters who broke down a back wall to enter filled up at least 10 cars with $100,000 in merchandise before escaping, police said.

Despite security footage, no arrests have been made in that case or in a rash of others in the area, including an incident a week earlier when more than 20 people busted in through the automotive section of a Memphis Walmart and made off with a number of TVs and scooters before leaving in what appeared to be at least 20 vehicles.

Most recently, a man and woman were reported to have walked out of a Memphis Bed, Bath and Beyond store. Though not a smash-and-grab theft, the duo made off with $3,500 in merchandise.

A Florida man was recently arrested for trying to shoplift gloves, perfume and other items during a ‘Shop with a Cop’ event at a Walmart in Osceola County where about 40 police officers were on site. Rival Target recently admitted its $400 million crime-fueled shrink problem could total $600 million before the year’s over.

Meanwhile, on Nov. 17 in Leesburg, Va., the same shoe store was robbed twice in a span of 10 days, the second time for a total of $20,000 in merchandise after six teenagers allegedly shattered the glass front door and made off with shoes.

Six suspects, all between the ages of 14 and 16, have been arrested in that case.

“It’s become normalized,” Memphis-based licensed clinical social worker Carmen Gray told ABC 24. “So they are successful in one smash and grab and more than likely they are going to do another one. And so, you have multiple crimes being done by the same individuals because they’ve gotten away with it.”