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How Police, Retailers Are Fighting Organized Theft Rings

Robert Whitley showed off mountains of merchandise inside his sprawling warehouse. “At the right price, I don’t care what it is, it’s going to sell,” said Whitley, 71. He may not fit the profile of a crime boss, but federal prosecutors have described Whitley, who goes by Mr. Bob, as the leader of a multimillion dollar shoplifting ring, NBC News reports. From 2011 to 2019, he sold more than $6 million worth of stolen goods — everything from razors to Rogaine to teeth-whitening strips — on Amazon and other online marketplaces. Prosecutors say he paid professional shoplifters to steal specific items from drug stores, supermarkets and big box retailers across Georgia.

The case against Whitley was built not just by federal agents but corporate investigators with CVS, Target and Publix, representing the kind of collaboration that has grown amid what industry groups say is a historic spike in organized retail crime. Whitley was sentenced to nearly six years behind bars after pleading guilty to one count of interstate transport of stolen property. Organized theft costs retailers billions of dollars each year, a crime wave that industry groups say was plaguing the U.S. before the COVID-19 pandemic and has only got worse. Videos of “smash-and-grab” store robberies have gone viral in recent months, and rampant thievery has caused stores to shut down. At the same time, police departments have scaled back property crime enforcement due to soaring rates of violent crime and criminal justice reforms that have increased the threshold for charging shoplifters with felonies. National retailers have filled the void with their own armies of investigators. They spend months and sometimes years gathering evidence against shoplifting rings and present nearly formed criminal cases to law enforcement.

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