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INDIANAPOLIS — Law enforcement confirms they are battling a $70 billion organized theft problem nationwide that has multi-million dollar impacts in Indiana.

People are stealing products en masse from retail stores and reselling those items online, and Indiana is an attractive target for thieves due to the lack of an organized crime law.

“These are people that steal from a dozen stores a day, sometimes $10,000 per store,” Ben Dugan, president of the National Coalition of Law Enforcement and Retail, said. “They’re stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars a week and they travel state to state, county to county and funnel that product through these online fences.”

Dugan and other law enforcement professionals describe the criminals as “professional thieves.”

According to investigators, the thieves map out which stores to hit. They target low-cost hardware stores, beauty supply stores and big chain retail stores like Walmart and Kroger. In some cases, they’ll store products in a warehouse until they’re able to sell them online. Often, they sell products at a discount online, but make a good amount of money doing it.

“When you’re making an income of $5,000 to $7,000 a week, tax free, that’s pretty attractive,” Jerry Biggs, manager of major investigations for Sally Beauty, told CBS4 Consumer Investigations. 

“They work seven days a week, and they’ll travel throughout Indiana, then go back home to perhaps Chicago or Cleveland,” Dugan added.

Each law enforcement official CBS4 spoke with confirmed the same thing: There are currently several multi-million-dollar investigations underway in Indiana. They cited the fact that Indiana is so centrally located.

“We follow these guys for weeks at a time and watch them steal the product. Eventually, they get arrested, but we’re always trying to track that product. That’s how we know, for a fact, that it originated in Indiana,” Dugan confirmed. “Because we were there.”

“Every state that surrounds Indiana has some type of organized crime law. Indiana doesn’t.”

Jerry Biggs, manager of major investigations for Sally Beauty

Often, investigators said, the thieves know exactly how much to steal so that they aren’t charged with a felony. Furthermore, Indiana doesn’t have an organized crime law on the books.

“I have done groups — even years ago back in Texas — when it was $1,500, they would steal $1,400. And so, they do that all day long knowing they’re committing misdemeanors,” Biggs explained. “Every state that surrounds Indiana has some type of organized crime law. Indiana doesn’t. We have tried to push one for the last few years, but we have struggled with getting it through.”

Biggs may have been referring to HB 1323. In 2019, Republican State Rep. Sharon Negele introduced that legislation. Had it passed, it would have enhanced penalties for those involved with organized retail crime. The bill passed the House but died in the Senate. It was referred to a committee but never heard.

“I think we need to show people and educate people more about the problem,” Biggs insisted. “We’re not talking about some nickel-dime thievery here. … This money is being stolen out of your community. Our community. It is funding other, much more serious crime! I have done crimes or investigations where they have led up where the money was actually funding terrorists.”

Investigators added that thieves have become more brazen about their crimes.

“They don’t even care if you see them!” Biggs exclaimed. “They’re not even trying to conceal it anymore. They’re just grabbing armfuls because they know by the time the police get there, they’re going to be long gone and they’re not even from that area.”

Source: RILA organized retail crime study, November 2021

CBS4 spoke with the Retail Industry Leader’s Association (RILA), which recently released new statistics. Its study showed the amount of organized retail crime had increased throughout the pandemic.

“This is the first year we have done this study,” Jason Brewer, senior vice president of communications and marketing, said. “We did it because we have seen the huge uptick in organized retail crime over the years and we wanted to be able to show policy makers and law enforcement how bad the problem has gotten.”

Brewer said RILA is now rallying for federal lawmakers to pass a law called the INFORM Consumers Act. It would require high-volume third-party sellers to submit their name, tax ID and bank account information to the venues in which they sell. It would also require the marketplace to verify that information.

“Unfortunately, what’s happening is the anonymity of the internet has really allowed individuals to build a business by reselling stolen product online marketplaces like on Amazon or Facebook,” he said. “We need more transparency online. We need to be able to see the folks who are selling on these platforms so that its harder for them to hide behind a screen name and sell stolen product.”

Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) introduced the INFORM Consumers Act in March 2021.

In December, dozens of CEOs — those at the head of Home Depot, Best Buy, CVS, Ulta Beauty, Nordstrom, Target and more — signed a letter asking Congress to act. As of CBS4’s air date in February 2022, the bill had not advanced.

Anchor and Consumer Investigations Reporter Angela Brauer reached out to several Indiana lawmakers asking what they were doing, if anything, to address this ongoing problem. We emailed the press contact for Sen. Greg Taylor, the only Democratic member on the Corrections and Criminal Law Committee; the press contact for Sen. Michael Young, a Democrat who chairs the Corrections and Criminal Law Committee; and Sen. Aaron Freeman, a Republican member. None responded. 

CBS4 contacted several companies where investigators have found criminals selling online. Each issued a statement or commented that they do support legislation to crack down on this criminal activity.

The Indiana Attorney General’s Office said the crime aspect of this matter makes it a law enforcement issue. A spokesperson suggested we check with the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council for aggregated data. We emailed IPAC asking how many organized retail crime cases Indiana has closed since 2017 and how many cases were underway right now. A representative from that office responded, saying they do not keep track of ongoing investigations and that they weren’t sure where we got our information.

“We could look up how many cases were charged but we need a more specific code site than just ‘organized retail crime.’ Let me know what the specific charge you want us to look up is and we can get the number of times that charge has been filed.”

Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council (IPAC)

Unfortunately, we did not have any specific charges for the office to immediately reference.