Professional thieves are scoring big on retailers, online and otherwise.
These criminals are often connected to other forms of crime, like human-trafficking and gang activity.
Without a crackdown from lawmakers, the security of shoppers could be in peril.
Hector Balderas is serving his second term as New Mexico's Attorney General.
This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
Businesses and law enforcement, both in New Mexico and across the nation, are now battling a new epidemic: organized retail crime.
Today, groups of professional thieves are stealing mass quantities of merchandise from retailers and selling the items to consumers, particularly on e-commerce platforms. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle - at the state and local levels - can no longer afford to turn a blind eye to it.
It's important to recognize that organized retail crime rings aren't made up of neighborhood shoplifters or teenage delinquents - these are violent, skilled thieves who seek profit and profit alone. It also shouldn't come as a shock that they can be tied back to other reprehensible schemes such as human trafficking, narcotics, and gang activity.
Organized retail crime has worsened over the years as online marketplaces became easy, anonymous platforms for criminals to fence mass quantities of stolen merchandise. Just as alarming, these thieves have become more brazen and violent in their schemes, putting retail employees and innocent customers at risk when they carry mace, knives, and guns into stores to assist in the commission of their crimes.
New Mexico has been plagued by violent retaliation when authorities attempt to detain these thieves. In 2018, an Albuquerque grocery store employee confronted a shoplifter and was stabbed in the chest, nearly dying. In June 2020, a Santa Fe man slashed at store personnel with a knife when they attempted to detain him following a theft.
In November 2020, a Dillard's loss-prevention officer at Cottonwood Mall was shot as he attempted to apprehend a shoplifter. And just last month, a State Police officer was threatened with a handgun by a felon who had just stolen from a Dollar General in Pecos.
Unfortunately, these examples are not uncommon.
There is an urgent need to address this growing problem - we need better resources and smarter laws on our books to protect communities and shut down these criminal networks plaguing local storefronts.
An organized solution to organized crime
Earlier this month, our office, along with the Albuquerque Police Department, announced plans to address the rise of organized retail crime. By coordinating efforts of law enforcement and working hand in hand with local businesses, we can stand up to these violent criminal operations and start to shut them down. However, addressing a widespread issue like this requires a two-pronged approach. While law enforcement officials will continue to do their job, we must also consider policy-based solutions at both the state and federal levels.
New Mexico currently lacks the appropriate laws required to address retail crime in the physical and online spaces. I have called on the New Mexico Legislature to pass the Organized Retail Crime Act, which would increase the penalties for serial shoplifters. As the law stands today, thefts under $500 only qualify as a misdemeanor, allowing savvy crime rings to shoplift from multiple stores without the risk of a more serious charge, harming others in the process.
Allow me to present two examples of how our present laws are deficient. First, offenders who use violence to retain stolen property immediately after a nonviolent taking - such as when a shoplifter threatens store security personnel when trying to exit the store with stolen merchandise - do not meet the requirements for "armed robbery" in New Mexico, and can thus only be prosecuted for less-serious crimes with lower penalties.
Secondly, no law presently allows prosecutors to punish serial shoplifters for their organized activities; rather, these offenders are now punished individually for each less-serious offense, not the brazen aggregation of their acts.
We must also counter organized retail crime within the online realm. Our federal laws, as they stand, don't do enough to ensure the legitimacy of third-party sellers or products. Estimates place the exact loss from organized retail crime to the retail industry to be between $15 to $37 billion annually. Unless we take appropriate action, we can only expect to see this number increase, and for attacks in community stores to escalate.
Without transparency regulations in place, shoplifters can capitalize on the lack of verification mechanisms on online marketplaces, selling stolen goods to unwary shoppers. Savvy criminal actors are easily able to create seller accounts and impersonate legitimate businesses.
Federal lawmakers have recognized the need for swift action. The INFORM Consumers Act, which sits in both the US House and the Senate, is the most comprehensive piece of federal legislation targeting the sale of stolen goods online. It requires e-commerce websites to verify basic information from third-party sellers, such as a government-issued ID and necessary business contact information.
The legislation will provide online shoppers the transparency they deserve before making an online purchase, while also helping legitimate businesses - a win for all except those looking to profit from stolen goods. A national measure such as the INFORM Consumers Act will support the efforts of law enforcement officials across our state, giving them an additional tool to better track and take down dangerous retail theft rings.
While our office will continue to do all that it can to protect New Mexico, we call on lawmakers to take the steps necessary to keep consumers and businesses safe. Viable legislative solutions - at both the state and federal levels - will significantly aid our efforts. I urge lawmakers in Santa Fe and Washington to make combating organized retail crime a top priority.
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