Shoplifting in Chicago

How police are dealing with the rise of flash shoplifting mobs and organized shoplifting.

Individual shoplifters like Chloe have long been a problem for law-enforcement officials—particularly around the holidays. Foot traffic in stores is up, and seasonal employees don’t know the ropes. But the face of shoplifting is changing, with more people teaming up on bigger, more financially devastating jobs. And thus, officials are creating new laws, task forces and sting operations to combat theft.

Some of the shoplifters targeted by these programs aren’t professional criminals: Last year, Chicago got hit with a wave of so-called flash mob shoplifting, in which large groups of juveniles hit several Michigan Avenue stores—the North Face, Armani AX Exchange—in a burst of thrill-seeking theft. And in July, many people watched the surveillance video, posted online, of a mob of young men pouring into Mildblend Supply Company on Milwaukee Avenue during Wicker Park Fest, overwhelming the store with a multiplying presence and stealing a reported $3,000 worth of merchandise.

Then there are the organized crews: savvy, profit-hungry shoplifters who usually work in groups of twos, threes or more, with one person providing a distraction in the stores. The crews often use two cars—one is a “clean” car that holds the shoplifters and the other is a cargo car stuffed with stolen merchandise. This way only one person, the driver of the cargo car, risks arrest during the getaway. Crews travel from one shopping mall to another, and often from state to state. According to the National Retail Federation, 96 percent of surveyed U.S. merchandisers have been hit by professional crews in the past year, and Chicago is one of the top ten destinations for rings of thieves.

Estimates from State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez indicate that Illinois loses more than $77 million in tax dollars—sales tax, liquor tax, entertainment tax and more—annually because of shoplifting. Consumer Reports pegs the “crime tax,” the amount each American family pays in higher prices at stores due to shoplifting, at $450 a year.

“A small-scale retail approach to shoplifting is not going to do anything,” says Jack Blakey, chief of the special prosecutors bureau of the State’s Attorney’s Office. “The problem will just keep repeating itself. So law enforcement here is changing its response” to be more aggressive.

CCROC, the Cook County State’s Attorney Regional Organized Crime Task Force, was formed in 2010 to bring retailers together with law enforcement to work as partners. Members include Walgreens, CVS, Target, Macy’s, Meijer, OfficeMax, Jewel-Osco, J.C. Penney, Walmart and eBay. (So Chloe isn’t paranoid; eBay sales are being watched.) On a secure website, members can share information, including reports of organized retail crime and BOLOs, be-on-the-lookout alerts about suspected thieves. A store can post a photo of a suspected shoplifter, allowing other merchants to comment if the man or woman seems familiar. Together, CCROC has managed to identify patterns of multistate boosting crews, who lift and then often ship the stolen merchandise back to an out-of-state fence, a middleman who buys stolen goods from thieves and sells them for a profit.

Thanks to a 2011 Illinois law, HB6460, Cook County prosecutors are taking a national lead in prosecuting shoplifters. HB6460 expands the existing financial criminal enterprises statute to include organized retail theft—defined as property being stolen and resold. This law makes stealing and working with a fence three or more times in an 18-month period a class X felony, boosting the amount of time served to anywhere from six to 30 years with no probation. If you are part of the scheme but not a leader, you can be charged with a class 1 felony, punishable by four to 15 years. It’s the first law in Illinois to address organized retail theft; prior to this, offenders would have faced shoplifting charges punishable by up to only three years behind bars. The new law also allows prosecutors to go after offenders’ assets. “It’s a law that’s got some teeth in it,” says David Williams, assistant state’s attorney.

“The public needs to understand the extent of this kind of stealing,” Williams says. “We are not talking about a person swiping a candy bar, but people who steal as a profession, then off-load the goods to a fence. Shoplifting is a low-level crime that can tie into a large-scale criminal enterprise quickly.”

Blakey and Williams give examples: a Chicago man, arrested in March, who was so good at stealing bicycles that when he was caught, the police had to untangle a massive two-story pile of bikes, tossed together on their sides like pickup sticks. He had them stacked in the foyer of his Near North apartment as well as in two rented storage units. “Great thief, terrible fencing abilities,” Blakey says. “He was way behind the curve in moving his merchandise.”

In November 2010, Chicago also saw the arrests of Vijay and Ajay Patel, brothers charged with operating a multimillion-dollar criminal enterprise out of their Northwest Side sham-company distribution warehouse. “They were purchasing and reselling stolen merchandise in a major fencing operation,” Williams says. “Good fences, bad money launderers. They couldn’t move the money fast enough.” Investigators found more than $4.5 million in cash, stuffed into duffel bags and suitcases in both the warehouse and their homes.

For all their successes in catching shoplifters, though, law-enforcement officials still express frustrations. Combating flash mobs in high-density shopping areas is one. “We can’t stop a social-media call to steal,” Williams says. “But those events are usually more of a grab-and-go situation,” meaning thieves snatch something by the door and don’t net as much as an organized crew.

Department-store merchandisers could help deter flash mobs if they would move their easy-to-lift products away from the entrance, he says. Also, Williams has run into reluctance from some high-end stores to prosecute shoplifters. This year, for example, a man was caught putting a $5,200 crystal vase from Neiman Marcus into his shopping bag and walking onto Michigan Avenue with it. The store declined to prosecute. “Some of these fancy stores”—Williams names several on Michigan Avenue—“are more concerned with making the customer experience a pleasant one, rather than utilizing antitheft techniques.” In other words, these stores don’t want you to think your shopping trip could be marred by a run-in with a thief. (Neiman Marcus declined to comment on the vase theft.)

Last fall, the State’s Attorney’s office unveiled Operation Whoville, an undercover series of stings that targeted shoplifters at Orland Square Mall and Woodfield Mall, and on North Michigan Avenue. The result: 59 very public arrests and a stern warning to organized boosters. “We called it Whoville based on the Dr. Seuss books,” says Williams, who leads the task force. “Because we knew the Grinch was coming.”

This holiday season, they say, the Whos are coming back to stop the Grinches in their tracks.