PUYALLUP, Wash. — Organized retail theft is on the rise.
Every year, goods worth nearly $47 billion are shoplifted off store shelves nationwide.
Prices are raised to cover the losses, costing the average family in Washington State an additional $400 a year, according to Mark Johnson with the Washington Retail Association.
“We’re seeing a big increase” in organized retail theft, Johnson told KIRO 7 on Friday. “The groups are becoming more and more sophisticated.” In Washington state alone, he said $940 million in merchandise was shoplifted last year, leading to $80 million in lost tax revenue.
The Macy’s store in Puyallup’s South Hill Mall is one of the most-targeted locations, according to police reports obtained by KIRO 7.
Surveillance video from Oct. 24th shows multiple people grabbing as much merchandise as possible, then leaving the store. One person was tackled and detained, but the others escaped in a waiting car.
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According to Johnson, the people most often caught on video or by police are working for someone else.
“They’re called mules in our industry and they’re the ones usually hired by the ring leaders for these organized retail crime rings up and down the I-5 corridor,” he said during an interview in his Olympia office.
Three so-called mules were recently arrested and charged with targeting the Factoria Target in Bellevue.
Seth Tyler of the Bellevue Police Department told KIRO 7 “they hit multiple cities. They don’t discriminate. Bellevue, Seattle, Northgate, they will hit retail centers, often several in a day.”
According to police reports, the South Hill Mall Macy’s store has been hit at least six times since late September.
The mall’s Victoria Secret has been targeted four times, including a recent case where a man stole thousands of dollars in jackets and leggings, easy to re-sell on-line. His image, captured on surveillance video, is now being distributed by the Puyallup Police Department in an effort to identify a suspect.
However, even though organized retail theft is increasing, many stores have hands-off policies that prohibit employees from engaging thieves, according to Johnson, whose organization represents dozens of retail stores and chains. He said, those policies are meant to keep employees and suspects safe.
Instead, many stores are now hiring security companies or off-duty police officers to cut-down on shoplifting.
The Washington Retail Association is also hoping state lawmakers will pass a concealment bill during the next legislative session.
As Washington State law now stands, store employees and security guards are not allowed to ask patrons whether they’ve hidden merchandise while in the store. Store visitors can only be asked that question once they leave, which would indicate a possible intent to shoplift. Johnson said, by that time it’s too late.
Meanwhile, criminals are becoming so sophisticated, ring leaders send shoplifters into the stores with lists of merchandise to steal and strict instructions to keep the loss below $750-dollars to avoid felony charges if caught.
Cox Media Group