Pandemic, opioids, rising prices blamed for sharp rise in retail thefts
“In retail, we’re in business to sell, they are in business to steal.”
Craig Dowdle, the regional investigation manager for Lowe’s Home Improvement, told state legislators Tuesday that Organized Retail Crime has been rising steadily since the pandemic.
“I’m not talking about someone who comes into the store because their lawnmower won’t run and they can’t afford the part to fix it, or the roof that’s leaking and they steal a pack of shingles,” Dowdle explained. “These are people who come in and steal significant amounts of product.”
Dowdle told members of the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Justice and Public Safety that it’s not just one store; it’s a statewide problem.
“I want to make sure you understand. These are professionals, organized, using their phones, using apps, mapping the stores,” Dowdle continued. “And we’ve got so many Lowe’s stores here it’s profitable for a theft group to hit Lowe’s in North Carolina because travel, logistics is down — because our stores are so close together.”
In addition to merchandise theft, Dowdle said the Mooresville-based retail giant has seen a rise in credit card and refund fraud.
“Don’t forget when someone does a fraudulent refund, we give them back the tax money too, they get that back. When they are stealing product they are not paying taxes.”
And it’s more than just an occasional power tool that vanishes from the store shelves.
As commodity prices have risen, Lowe’s has seen thefts increase for copper.
Their number one selling item, lumber or OSB (oriented strand board) has been especially popular among thieves.
“We store it outside where it’s easy for the customer or the contractor to get that. But it also allows the shoplifter, the organized crime unit, to drive up a truck and trailer,” Dowdle explained. “Couple guys they can load a lot of product. Ten sheets of OSB is $300, 100 sheets $3,000.”
Dowdle said Lowe’s employees are there to help customers complete their “honey-do lists” not act as law enforcement.
“When someone is pushing out a cart load of product with a can of mace, threatening to spray employees, I can tell you it’s not in our handbook as a how-to of how to handle that situation.”
Sgt. Scott Womack with the City of Raleigh Police Department agreed that shoplifting has become a significant issue since the pandemic.
Raleigh police have recorded more than 2,100 shoplifting cases in past 12 months.
“The average age of the offender is 37 years old, so we’re not talking about someone who is just starting out or saying, ‘Here’s a T-shirt I don’t want to pay for’,” Sgt. Womack said. “We are talking about seasoned professionals.”
Womack told the committee these individuals are often operating in groups of two or more.
“How do they communicate? It’s real simple. We have great technology. They are texting each other, they’re on their cell phones.”
Womack said another common scheme is to steal merchandise and return it to a store without a receipt. The store may not give them cash, but they will provide a store gift card that the thief can then use or re-sell.
The pandemic has added another wrinkle for investigators as customers have been encouraged to mask up.
“When someone is wearing a mask it makes it harder to use traditional methods to identify suspects,” said Womack.
The National Retail Federation reports that 65% of retailers report a greater level of violence over the past 12 months.
“Eighty-six percent of [retailers report] their associates have been verbally threatened by suspects, 75% have had an associate assaulted,” Womack testified.
And it’s not always the high-ticket items that are being stolen.
Batteries, razor blades, detergent pods that can be easily resold are increasingly targeted by organized criminals, according to Womack.
“We see these things taken because it’s what people use every day. That’s what people are willing to buy.”
Last September the Cabarrus County Sheriff’s Office executed a search warrant at a home in Harrisburg, N.C., and recovered about $400,000 in stolen merchandise from Lowe’s, Home Depot, Target, Harbor Freight and Harris Teeter.
The sheriff’s office in that case said five people were operating a large organized retail theft operation out of the basement of the rental home, selling many stolen items online.
“Do you have an estimate going back to the last calendar year of how much merchandise was stolen in your stores?” Sen. Bob Steinburg (R-Camden) asked.
“Millions,” answered Dowdle, the investigation manager for Lowe’s.
Dowdle said current legislation caps out the punishment on organized retail theft as a Class G felony with a value exceeding $20,000.
“What about those that are hitting $50,000, $100,000, half-a-million?” he pressed lawmakers.
Sen. Warren Daniel (R-Avery) said while he would gladly support any legislation to address the problem, the true problem was border security.
“Y’all need to be burning up the White House’s phone, you need to be burning up Congress, because this bill is not going to stop your problem,” said Daniel.
Rep. Charles Graham (D-Robeson) said the elephant in the room is addiction.
“I think until we really address the issue of the opioid crisis and the mental health issues that are stemming from this opioid crisis, we’re again going to get the same results,” offered Graham. “And I’m not sure how willing we as a state and a General Assembly are willing to do that.”
The Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Justice and Public Safety hopes to fast track legislation during the upcoming short session that would increase the penalties for organized retail theft.
Committee co-chair Sen. Danny Britt (R-Robeson) said the draft legislation will also include a provision to expedite the return of any recovered goods to the retailer.
“What we don’t want is these things stolen sitting in an evidence locker for two or three years whenever the evidence could be cataloged and saved for purposes or prosecution, but still releasing that evidence to the party it belongs to,” said Britt.