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To Cut Down on Shoplifting, Let’s Arrest Some CEOs
by Ethan Corey
Arresting just a few CEOs would likely do more to curb theft in this country than locking up 10,000 petty thieves, but American lawmakers seem hell-bent on not taking that route. In January, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators, led by soon-to-be-90-year-old Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, proposed a bill that would, if enacted, create a national center so federal law-enforcement agents can track and arrest people stealing from retail stores.
Connoisseurs of the local evening news are probably not shocked as to why: Since the early days of the pandemic, American television screens have been awash in images of toothpaste locked up in plexiglass cases at CVS and sensational coverage of teens stealing luxury handbags. Looking around, one could easily believe that the United States is in the midst of a full-blown shoplifting “epidemic” that demands state and federal intervention.
The problem with the bill is twofold: For one, surveys of retailers suggest that the frequency of shoplifting has barely changed over the past decade. The most recent (but very incomplete) crime statistics collected by the FBI back this up. Those numbers show a significant decline in the property crime rate, including thefts, over the last 10 years.
But secondly, and perhaps more importantly, lawmakers are going after the wrong people. In their efforts to crack down on theft, retailers have pushed particularly tough penalties for those who belong to so-called “organized retail theft” rings, defined as any group of two or more people who work together to steal goods from stores. At least 34 states have passed laws against organized retail theft.
It’s unlikely that these laws will do much to curb shoplifting. Research has found virtually no deterrent effect for arresting, prosecuting, or imprisoning shoplifters. More importantly, these laws do nothing about the largest and most profitable players in the retail theft industry: online marketplaces such as Amazon, eBay, and Facebook Marketplace, which make billions of dollars from the sale of stolen goods. In fact, under existing federal law, these companies are virtually immune from criminal or civil liability.
If any of those companies started to feel the heat from regulators—or perhaps even law enforcement—the market for stolen retail goods could dry up in weeks or months. To their credit, major retail chains have been publicly making this point for years and begging Congress to act. But, until change happens, U.S. law enforcement seems happy to bury its head in the sand and pretend a few more shoplifting busts can fix the problem.
Organized retail theft is not a new phenomenon. One early account of professional shoplifting in London dates back to 1592. Back then, “lifts” typically worked in teams of three to steal merchandise and sell it to other businesses for a profit. Today, professional shoplifting rings operate much the same way. “Boosters” do the risky work of stealing goods from stores, while “fences” sell the stolen products on the black market.
This illicit economy depends on fences’ ability to move stolen products quickly. After all, someone who shoplifts 50 boxes of toothpaste isn’t acting out of misguided zeal for dental hygiene; the point is to resell the ill-gotten Colgate for cash. Historically, this has been the most challenging part of the shoplifting process. It’s easy to walk out of a store with a bag full of toiletries, but most consumers aren’t interested in buying Crest whitening strips from some guy in a dark alley.
Today, selling stolen goods is easier than ever, thanks to online marketplaces such as Amazon, eBay, and Facebook Marketplace. Fences can pass off their wares as legitimate using online storefronts, and the marketplaces’ broad user base—more than 230 million U.S. adults made an online purchase in 2021—ensures a steady stream of customers.
Industry experts estimate that more than $500 billion in stolen and counterfeit goods are sold on online marketplaces each year. However, critics have noted that retail trade groups’ methodology for determining those statistics is flawed, if not flat-out made-up.
Online retailers say they try to identify and ban people selling stolen merchandise. In practice, they have little incentive to look very hard. After all, the sale of stolen goods allows them to make risk-free commissions while undercutting their brick-and-mortar competitors.
Last year, Congress passed the INFORM Consumers Act, which requires online marketplaces to verify the identity of third-party sellers who move more than $5,000 of products annually. However, marketplaces still have no legal obligation to confirm that goods sold on their platform aren’t stolen. The law also left online marketplaces’ legal immunity untouched, even while operators of physical marketplaces face prison time for allowing others to sell stolen merchandise.
This leaves us with the worst of all possible worlds. Targeting boosters is notoriously ineffective, as the vast majority of shoplifting incidents don’t lead to arrests.
Boosters are typically the lowest-ranking figures in the hierarchy of organized shoplifting rings. Many are victims of labor trafficking coerced into stealing to pay off immigration-related debts. Others are people with expensive substance use habits who steal to pay for the drugs they need to stave off withdrawal. Many have past involvement with the criminal legal system.
As a result, calls for more arrests and prosecutions of shoplifters only serve to fill jails and prisons with more people accused of low-level and nonviolent offenses. Boosters typically earn, at best, a few hundred dollars for a day’s work of shoplifting. Companies like Amazon, by contrast, make billions of dollars each year from the sale of illicit goods on their platforms. If lawmakers dared to stand up to online retailers, they could go after the real kingpins—not the people stealing deodorant just to get by.
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That’s all for this week. As always, feel free to leave us some feedback, and if you want to invest in the future of The Appeal, donate here.