Asheville – It started as a casual conversation between an employee and a customer at the self-checkout at Home Depot.
“What would really be a cool promotion would be, for a month, to have the machines randomly shoot out cash prizes instead of receipts.”
“That would only cause Home Depot to raise prices on everything to pay for it.”
“That would be chunk change to Home Depot executives.”
“Then Home Depot needs to lower its prices.”
“The prizes would be no more than what people walk out with without paying.”
The employee, with prompting, went on to explain people in the woods behind the store don’t want the life they lead. He works with some of them in a volunteer ministry. He said they have no home, no hope, and all they live for is their next hit of cocaine. He began speaking of a network, an organized crime ring, in which enterprising criminals come up with shopping lists, and those who steal the items for them get paid in cocaine. Asked where one even finds one of these “dealers,” the employee said one could find one if he stood around on a corner for any length of time.
Asked about his source(s) of intel, he said he had read an article in The Times, and some of the people he works with in his volunteering gig have confirmed the tales. He said manufacturers are starting to put chips in the good power tools to either disable them until an authorized vendor activates them at the point of sale, or to reveal their location to the owners. The latter could be good for those who are always misplacing their tools, but the employee told of persons in the construction industry losing tools as readily as hardware stores. He added Milwaukee had, in fact, been using the tracking feature for some time.
A Google search of keywords led straight to a story about a sting operation in Albuquerque, New Mexico a week earlier, in which four shoplifters were arrested, one of whom was among five serial shoplifters the city’s Organized Crime Unit was seeking. Two of the arrestees had recently stolen thousands of dollars of tools, air compressors, and optical cable.
New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas said of the incident, “This is not about shoplifting. This is not about teenage delinquencies. This is about a very profitable industry that is now funneling and fueling other criminal activity like human trafficking and gang activity.”
In Waupun, Wisconsin, three men worked together to steal a Milwaukee tool case. One man ran with the merchandise through an alarmed door to the getaway car. A woman who stole two grills from an Ace Hardware in Clermont, Florida was arrested after facial recognition software analyzed security camera footage.
Instances of serial theft include another man being arrested in Clifton Park, New York. This man and an associate were charged with taking a log splitter, two generators, and a snow blower from Ace Hardware, Tractor Supply, and Robinson’s Hardware. A serial hardware thief in Sonora, California was eventually arrested on two charges of felony grand theft. In San Marcos, Texas, two people, one of whom wore an ankle bracelet, made off with “a large amount” of electrical wire from Lowe’s.
In this country, theft typically goes hand-in-hand with drug abuse; impaired people with insatiable cravings are more inclined to break the law than poor persons in great need of hardware. One high-profile case of hardware theft fueling drug abuse this year comes from Cadiz, Kentucky, where a couple was arrested after taking about $827 worth of items from Ace Hardware. In the bag with some of the stolen items, police found prescription bottles and a scale with drug residue on it.
The most astonishing part of the story, the part about organized crime rings, with agents handing out shopping lists and paying thieves with cocaine, has been common knowledge among federal law enforcement agencies since the 1980s. In 2011, the Dallas Police Department explained to their city council how it works, with thieves selling items to the boss for about 20% of retail value and, in turn, getting a lot of convictions. Secondly, third-party sellers purchase items on the cheap from the boss, often unwittingly, for resale. These sellers, also get arrested. The boss, of course, keeps his nose clean. It was assumed Dallas City Council would be interested, since letting the rings continue unabated was costing the city in sales tax revenues and business recruitment.
Thieves working off shopping lists were also reported in North Carolina in 2009. Police said big-box stores near interstates were prime targets; items on the lists tended to include whatever was being hyped at the time. Mass quantities of these items were accumulated by taking just one or two from several stores because this keeps losses below anything that would motivate an attorney general to pursue recovery.
Since those working for the boss often operate across state lines, retail executives began cooperating with each other early in the 2000s to compile the National Retail Federation database. After an incident, retailers would fill out a questionnaire, in which patterns could be sufficient to capture the attention of law enforcement.
The exact amount of goods stolen is hard to guess because of underreporting. A lot of stores instruct their employees to just let the thieves go, as they value their employees’ lives more than their merchandise.