Law enforcement coalition targets spiking organized retail theft of baby formula, cannabis
Washington retailers lost $2.7 billion in merchandise to organized retail theft in 2021, with organized crime rings targeting high-demand consumer items such as baby formula and cannabis. Those thefts often span multiple jurisdictions, prompting the attorney general to coordinate a statewide law enforcement coalition tasked with targeting the responsible crime rings.
Thursday, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced the Washington Organized Retail Crime Theft Task Force, consisting of local law enforcement, prosecuting attorneys, and local retailers.
Organized crime rings target merchandise that can be resold easily online. Organized retail theft differs from burglary, involving a scheme to defraud retails instead, often involving intimidation and violence towards store employees.
“Coordination is key to combatting this growing, and sometimes dangerous, problem,” Ferguson said Thursday. “These organized crimes cross jurisdictions and cause significant economic harm. I’m committed to working together with law enforcement and retail partners to help combat this significant and growing problem.”
Renée Sunde, CEO of the Washington Retail Association, noted that many small businesses are still struggling from economic pressure brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, and increasing instances of coordinated violent robbery have compounded their ability to recover.
The analysis presented by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security detailed the increasing rate of organized theft across the country, with Washington retailers experiencing a 151% increase in organized retail theft, year over year, between 2019 and 2020.
U.S. Attorney Nicholas Brown pointed out that organized retail theft funds “a myriad of other types of crime,” including drug and sex trafficking, as well as cyber and wire fraud.
“I can assure you that not only our offices and the Department of Justice but our law enforcement partners in the FBI and [Homeland Security Investigations] are working on this issue and will continue to do more,” Brown said Thursday.
One of the more easily re-sold stolen consumer items is baby formula, accounting for roughly 13% of all stolen items from stores, according to 2020 data from a national survey of retail outlets. Thieves can easily repackage the formula for re-sale on online marketplaces, with Ferguson noting that parents who unwittingly purchase baby formula from secondary markets can put their children at risk.
The task force, which will begin convening in early July, will bring together prosecutors and retailers from across the state with local, state, and federal law enforcement representatives, including the FBI and U.S. Attorneys Nick Brown and Vanessa Waldref. The Task Force will also include the Port of Seattle, small business representatives, and workers’ representatives.