Federal authorities say they’ve arrested more than a dozen people and broken up a massive shoplifting network that trafficked in some $20 million in apparel and other items stolen from stores all over the country and then sold in Mexico.
According to a grand jury indictment [PDF] unsealed this week, the San Diego-based defendants allegedly assembled “crews” of shoplifters who would steal items from a variety of stores — Victoria’s Secret, Hollister, American Eagle, Banana Republic — at malls both local and thousands of miles away.
Prosecutors say that this ring pilfered items at stores as far-flung as Washington state, Illinois, and Maryland, all with the intention of transporting the stolen goods back to the San Diego area, and then on to a fence in Mexico.
The indictment details the various roles given to the shoplifters involved in any given theft. There were “team leaders” who selected stores and targeted items within the store, while doing advance scouting for the presence of police or loss-prevention staff. When it came time to shoplift, the team leader would relocate the items targeted for shoplifting, putting them in spots within a store that made it easier for others to steal them.
Then there were the “mules,” who were responsible for concealing the stolen merchandise and walking out of the store with it. Mules often used “booster bags” — shopping bags lined with material that shielded items from stores’ anti-theft sensors. You can see the metallic foil lining in the image below:
Aiding the mules were “blockers,” whose job was to prevent store employees from spotting a mule, whether by obstructing the employees’ views, distracting the employees, or physically preventing employees from responding to the shoplifting.
The alleged thieves were not just looking to steal a few pairs of socks, either. In one day in Sept. 2014, defendants stole more than $3,000 in clothing from a single Banana Republic store in California. About a year later, the indictment says that $4,500 in apparel was lifted in one day from a Victoria’s Secret store. Two defendants are also accused of stealing in excess of $10,000 worth of Tommy Hilfiger products on one day in April 2016. Most recently, authorities claim this ring is responsible for the theft of $5,530 in apparel from one Abercrombie store in late July.
Some of the incidents tied to the ring got violent, claims the indictment. In 2008, one defendant allegedly attempted to drive over an Abercrombie & Fitch employee that tried to stop the shoplifter from fleeing. In 2012, prosecutors say two defendants drove their vehicle through a crowd in an effort to evade arrest after shoplifting items from a San Diego Hollister store.
All of this stolen merchandise was funneled to a fence in Mexico, who is accused of selling these items through her store in Tijuana. According to the indictment, one Oct. 2013 shipment to the fence contained more than $480,000 in items stolen from at least 57 different stores.
“The mall is supposed to be a safe place for families to shop, eat and enjoy themselves,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Alana Robinson. “Instead, a prolific and violent group of thieves has stolen millions of dollars in merchandise as well as peace of mind from mall employees and customers.”