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NRF Crime Czar: ‘People Believe it’s OK to Steal’

David Johnston’s tenure as the National Retail Federation’s anti-theft czar, as it were, could not have begun at a much more challenging time. 

With the wave of retail theft sweeping the nation, industry terms like “organized retail crime” and “smash and grab” are now part of the common parlance. And retailers scrambling for answers and support turn to NRF for both. 

David Johnston, vice president of asset protection and retail operations for the National Retail Federation.

“The first month I walked in to a busy and difficult time in retail,” said Johnston, a 30-year veteran in loss prevention and corporate security, who began the job of NRF’s vice president of asset protection and retail operations on Nov. 1. “It’s the holiday season, Covid is still impacting many businesses and there most certainly is an increase in violent theft.” 

Theories abound as to why shoplifting has gone from an annoyance retailers would calculate into their expense lines to an existential threat to brick and mortar business. To Johnston’s mind, the cause of it all starts as a disease in the collective soul. 

“I think there’s been a change in morality where people believe it’s OK to steal. More and more you’re seeing in the media videos of individuals, or large groups stealing mass quantities and threaten or commit violence against retail employees and it’s becoming more visible to the everyday person,” Johnston said. “It’s definitely a threat [to brick and mortar stores]. It’s not every day you hear Walmart and Target and other major retailers in their earnings calls and in interviews with the press converse about their losses. And it’s not just the major retailers; this is impacting small businesses as well. We’re seeing businesses closing from Mainstreet USA to the malls.” 

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While the fear and frustration have many calling for a rollback to the days of law enforcement and store security treating shoplifters more assertively, Johnston says the key to a long-term solution starts with Congress passing sound and actionable legislation

“There are several states that have created task forces to help with investigations and look to identify interstate groups. On a national level, the Combatting Organized Retail Crime Act will help to increase law enforcement’s ability to coordinate to help identify and investigate and disrupt and prosecute,” Johnston said. “At the state and local level, law enforcement needs to rethink policies and laws. If there’s a shoplifter who’s stealing for their own, personal gain, well, a misdemeanor may be appropriate. However, if they’re stealing power tools or designer goods or mass quantities, they need to be treated appropriately. There’s even a failure of law enforcement agencies to respond appropriately and that needs to be changed. The laws need to be severe and updated.” 

The Combatting Organized Retail Crime Act, introduced in the House by two Democrats and two Republicans in mid-October, aims to get governmental leaders, law enforcement and retail owners working together on a “cohesive national strategy.” 

“As organized retail crime is skyrocketing across our country, it’s time for the federal government to develop a comprehensive strategy to fight back and support the law enforcement officers who do their best to keep our communities safe every day,” said Rep. Ted Budd (R-N.C.). 

The act would also take aim at the root of the problem: the ease with which thieves liquidate their loot. 

“These stolen goods are then typically resold on the internet by sophisticated interstate criminal networks,” said Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.), another of the bill’s sponsors. “This bipartisan, bicameral bill will help law enforcement stop future attacks by improving coordination in the federal bureaucracy and ensuring that crimes of this type are appropriately punished.” 

Once upon a time, retail thieves would often have to transport their stolen goods to an unscrupulous pawn shop, or find another middle man to sell the goods. This practice is a term long-known on the streets as ‘fencing.’ Today, the ease and anonymity of selling on the internet makes ‘fencing’ much easier, and, Johnston says, it’s something addressed by the CORCA bill, as well as the INFORM (Integrity, Notification, and Fairness in Online Retail Marketplaces) Act, which passed the House on Nov. 17. It appears to be on its way to passage in the Senate, as it is attached to military funding in the National Defense Authorization Act. 

The INFORM act forces online marketplaces to verify high-volume third-party sellers by authenticating the seller’s government ID, tax ID, bank account information, and contact information. The bill defines high-volume third-party sellers as “vendors who have made 200 or more discrete sales in a 12-month period amounting to $5,000 or more.” 

“During Covid there was an increase in online retailing, online purchases and it was a visible avenue for resale of stolen goods… It’s really easy to steal and item and put it for sale online,” Johnston said. “One of the challenges we’ve had is sellers can kind of hide behind anonymity online. Now, some [marketplaces] do a great job helping law enforcement, helping retailers, but there are other online marketplaces with lax policies and procedures. The INFORM Act, at the national level, helps with that.” 

The CORCA bill, which Johnston doesn’t expect to see a vote on until after the next Congress is sworn in, gives authorities more resources and greater opportunity to cooperate on tracking interstate, and increasingly, international crime. 

“These highly structured groups—some retailers have said are transnational groups—are bringing in people from other countries, boosters to steal and bringing in structured fencing operations,” he said. “They’re cleansing product, removing tags and repackaging products. If you’re altering a dated food item, like baby formula, there is concern of injury or death to the consumer.” 

Johnston reminds that the solution to the problem can’t be government’s alone to solve. Retailers need to realize they’re all in this together. 

“Retailers are doing a very good job with each other to tackle the issue. There is no competitive advantage here—we all want to make sure the industry is protected,” Johnston said. “We need collaborations between retailers and law enforcement as their own individual entities, but also collaborations between the public and private sectors, in general.”