WA Attorney General starts new unit to investigate rising retail theft

Apr 27, 2023, 3:46 PM

retail theft...

Bob Ferguson announcing the creation of a new retail theft unit within the Attorney General's Office (Photo from the Office of the Attorney General)

(Photo from the Office of the Attorney General)

Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced Wednesday the creation of an Organized Retail Crime Unit in the Attorney General’s Office in order to coordinate, investigate and prosecute retail theft around Washington state.

The 10-person team of lawyers, investigators, and analysts will work with law enforcement agencies across the state in order to assist with investigations and allocate resources to agencies that might need them to stop these organized crime rings.

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“First, there are not enough resources to prosecute these cases. Number two, this organized retail theft transcends any city or county border, these folks are organized, and they operate across our state,” Ferguson said. “And so to have a statewide office that can work with all of our local prosecutors and go after these organizations is why it made sense to put this unit in the AGs office. And the key here is this unit is focused on one thing, organized retail crime.”

Organized retail crime involves a group of individuals that steal products in order to resell them for a profit. This does not include petty theft, shoplifting, or poverty-driven crimes.

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.

Back in June 2022, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced the Washington Organized Retail Crime Theft Task Force, consisting of local law enforcement, prosecuting attorneys, and local retailers. This task force was the group that created this unit, identifying the need for increased coordination between state, local, and federal law enforcement and small and large businesses.

Washington retailers lost $2.7 billion in merchandise to organized retail theft in 2021, with organized crime rings targeting high-demand consumer items. Those thefts often span multiple jurisdictions, prompting the attorney general to coordinate a statewide law enforcement coalition tasked with targeting the responsible crime rings.

“Organized retail crime harms workers in communities across our state,” said Faye Guenther, president of United Food and Commercial Workers 3000. “A centralized unit in the Attorney General’s Office focused on combating this problem will improve the lives of Washingtonians.”UFCW 3000 has 50,000 members working in grocery, retail, health care, meat packing, cannabis & other industries across Washington and the rest of the Pacific Northwest.

“You see individuals who simply walk in and brazenly walk right out with armloads, basketfuls, all sorts of things. And it puts the workers in a tough situation, right?” Ferguson said. “They can’t really intervene, that puts themselves at risk. And so it’s a terrible situation for the safety of the employees and for the safety of the public. And of course, it hurts all of us. Our bottom line prices will go up when [these] large amount of [thefts are] going on.”

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.

Ferguson 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.

“These are not petty thefts,” Ferguson said. “These are multi-jurisdictional, organized crime rings that endanger the safety of employees and customers, damage our economy, and drive up costs for all Washingtonians. This centralized, statewide unit will serve as a force multiplier to combat these sophisticated crimes and hold the perpetrators accountable. I look forward to working with the task force to maximize the effectiveness of this Unit.”

Heather Bosch contributed to this story

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WA Attorney General starts new unit to investigate rising retail theft