New Minnesota law cracks down on organized retail theft

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Charlie Anderson went from St. Paul patrol to investigative police work in 2011 and, as he followed up on shoplifting reports, he realized some weren’t as simple as a person slipping merchandise into their pocket and walking out the door.

“There’s something else going on here,” he thought.

As he talked to other law enforcement and retailers, he said his eyes were opened “to this world” of organized retail theft, Anderson said.

Organized retail theft — stealing to sell goods to other people — isn’t a new problem, but it’s in the public eye more. Target recently announced it was closing nine stores in four states (none in Minnesota), saying that theft and organized retail crime have threatened the safety of its workers and customers.

Charlie Anderson (Courtesy photo)

Anderson’s experiences more than a decade ago led him to start an organized retail crime association that grew into a statewide nonprofit, and he and others in the field have been pushing to change state law to distinguish shoplifting for personal use from stealing with the intent to resell items. After legislative approval last session, Gov. Tim Walz signed it into law.

“It separates a petty theft or a theft of necessity, a mom who steals baby formula, from career criminal activity in our laws,” said Bruce Nustad, Minnesota Retailers Association president.

The new law that took effect in August spells out that a person is guilty of organized retail theft if they’re working with at least one other person in “a retail theft enterprise,” they previously were involved in at least two separate retail thefts in a six-month period and they attempt to sell the merchandise or return it for anything of value. It increases the penalties compared to other theft. If stolen merchandise exceeds $5,000, a person who’s convicted could receive a prison term of up to 15 years, rather than 10 years.

No one had been charged in Minnesota under the new law as of Tuesday, though Anderson said it will take some time for police and prosecutors to build cases.

Cases don’t follow city or county boundaries and because individual law enforcement departments have limited resources, Minnesota Organized Retail Crime Association President Cody Johnson said what’s needed next is a task force in the state to allow investigators to work together on organized retail crime.

Local shoplifting trends

There have been some high-profile local cases of organized retail crime, such as grab-and-run thefts from Best Buy locations in Maplewood, Burnsville and Blaine on Black Friday in 2021, but theft rings in the Twin Cities aren’t usually as visible to the public.

While there aren’t official counts of organized retail theft, statistics show some of the picture. Local law enforcement report shoplifting incidents, among a myriad of crimes, for FBI statistics.

Shoplifting incidents across Minnesota, during the first nine months of each year, increased 13 percent from 2021 to 2022 and 2 percent from 2022 to this year at convenience stores, department/discount stores, grocery/supermarkets, shopping malls and specialty stores. The Pioneer Press didn’t analyze earlier statewide numbers because the FBI changed crime reporting requirements in 2021, and earlier statistics wouldn’t represent an apples-to-apples comparison.

The current patterns vary by metro-area counties: Across Washington County, for instance, there were 606, 648 and 579 reports respectively in the first nine months of 2021, 2022 and 2023. Ramsey County law enforcement recorded 1,087, 1,295 and 1,287 reports during those same time periods. In Hennepin County, shoplifting reports jumped from 2,968 in the nine months of 2021 to 4,089 in 2022 and 4,228 so far this year.

Retailers take varying approaches of reporting shoplifting and theft, which Eagan police say is reflected in reports from Twin Cities Premium Outlets, for example. This year, there were 287 police calls for service about shoplifting and theft from stores at the outlet mall through the end of September, compared to 206 throughout last year and 224 throughout 2021. But Eagan Police Detective Sgt. Mark Kritzeck attributes this year’s increase to Nike changing its loss-prevention policy. “They now call quite frequently,” he said.

Nike media relations didn’t respond to messages.

Twin Cities Premium Outlets said in a statement that they’re “not seeing significant crime trends.” The outlet mall has “trained security professionals who patrol the property 24/7,” the statement continued. “These professionals are supported by the Simon Operations Intelligence Center, where highly trained specialists use purposefully built algorithms to monitor real-time risk and conduct local, state and national intelligence gathering.”

How organized retail theft works

The focus of the new Minnesota law is on people stealing items to resell on the black market. Such “markets” aren’t necessarily hidden — they could be someone selling merchandise from the trunk of a car, on social media or on websites as common as Amazon or eBay, Anderson said.

It’s not a city vs. suburban problem — in fact, suburbs often have dense shopping areas where people can steal from multiple stores before leaving on a nearby highway, according to Johnson.

Organized retail theft runs the gamut from sophisticated to not.

Some people who’ve been arrested multiple times for shoplifting may have a chemical dependency problem, which they’re funding by stealing merchandise and reselling it, said Anderson, who is a St. Paul police commander on military leave as a Minnesota Army National Guard military intelligence officer.

In some cases, people work with friends or relatives to create a “customer base” using social media and they’re essentially “fulfilling orders” when they go out to steal, Anderson said.

There are also “state or national crews” that travel through regions of the U.S. with fraudulent bank or gift cards — they have funds on them through scams, stealing or other means — that they use to buy large quantities of merchandise and resell it, according to Anderson.

The items stolen in any of these cases can range from pricey steaks and seafood to cellphones to household items. Razor blade refills or teeth whitening strips are being locked up at stores, for example, because a lot of them can be quickly swiped and the dollar amounts can add up.

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Some merchandise is stolen by concealing it, but retailers say they’re concerned about seeing increasing brazenness from people who grab an armload of goods and walk out with them.

In the past, shoplifters would usually drop the merchandise and run if an employee or asset protection worker told them to stop, “but now what you see is a willingness to square off, threaten violence or use violence,” Anderson said.

Johnson, whose previous work included confronting shoplifters, said more stores are telling employees to take a “hands off” approach for safety. He’s worked in retail security for 18 years and is certified in organized retail crime investigations and loss prevention. He volunteers for the state organized retail crime association and spoke at the Legislature in favor of the new law.

The new state law includes an enhanced penalty if, during an offense, there is “a reasonably foreseeable risk of bodily harm to another.”

Locking up merchandise

Leo Pichardo, left, a store associate at Gristedes supermarket, retrieves a container of Tide laundry soap from a locked cabinet, Tuesday Jan. 31, 2023, at the store in New York. Increasingly, retailers are locking up more products or increasing the number of security guards at their stores to curtail theft. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

At a busy Target store — on University Avenue in St. Paul’s Midway — a look at police calls for service categorized as shoplifting or theft shows ups and downs; it’s not publicly known what the business’s reporting practices are.

From 2018 to 2019, shoplifting and theft reports at the store doubled from 154 to 306. Then, the numbers dropped to 133 in 2020 and 117 in 2022. This year, there were 190 calls for service for shoplifting or theft as of Oct. 12.

The Midway Target didn’t always have everyday-type merchandise — such as body wash, laundry detergent and vitamins — behind lock and key, but now there are aisles with locked-up merchandise. A reporter shopping in the store during a weekday lunch hour saw an employee working in those aisles, offering to unlock cases for customers as they shopped. A squad car was parked outside because the store often contracts with the St. Paul Police Department to pay overtime for an officer to be present.

Target spokesperson Joe Unger says they use, on a limited basis, “theft-deterrent merchandising strategies, such as locking cases, for categories that are prone to theft. While we don’t share specifics on these strategies, these decisions are generally made at a local level.”

Walgreens on St. Paul’s Grand Avenue also has similar merchandise locked up, as do Walgreens locations in Burnsville and Eagan.

“We are focused on the safety of our patients, customers and team members, and have programs in place to reduce organized retail theft in our stores,” said Kris Lathan, Walgreens spokesperson, in a statement. “We continue to take measures, like installing anti-theft devices and security personnel for example, to deter theft and ensure safety and security in our stores. These steps are taken in response to theft data and for that reason only, and these additional security measures allow us to improve on-shelf availability of products to customers.”

After Teresa Boardman headed out of the Grand Avenue Walgreens recently, she said she’s seen products locked up there and at the downtown St. Paul location. When she asks a worker for products to be unlocked, “It’s usually pretty fast,” she said. But, Boardman added, “I’m concerned about the future of retail stores” and, when it comes to theft, “somebody’s paying for that and it’s probably us.”

Johnson said he noticed stores in the Twin Cities locking up merchandise over the last year and he saw it earlier in other parts of the U.S.

George John, a University of Minnesota marketing professor, said stores wouldn’t be locking up merchandise without carrying out a cost-benefit calculation.

“Retailing is a very thin margin business, and it’s very, very competitive,” he said. If retailers are securing merchandise, it’s “not because they want to aggravate the customers, but because they think that’s a better approach for them than to just simply have the product and display as they used to have it.”

Smaller manufacturers or brands trying to get off the ground are hurt most because consumers are less likely to ask a store employee to open up a case to peruse products they’re not familiar with, John said.

State task force?

In Minnesota, top concerns for retailers in recent years have been finding workers, supply-chain troubles, and protecting their businesses from theft, said Nustad, the state retailers association president. He lobbied for the new state law.

During the next legislative session, Nustad said he plans to push for an organized retail crime task force in the state. That would get “prosecutors, financial investigators, law enforcement, retail loss prevention and store owners to all work together to identify these career criminal networks faster than we’re doing today,” he said.

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said he, prosecutors from his office and prosecutors from cities in the county are planning training around the new law, developing plans to work with police investigators, and utilizing industry-led resources to help with uncovering organized retail theft operations.

“One of the biggest challenges will be to find the investigative capacity as this new law did not provide funding,” he said. “The good news is that there are strong partnerships and interest in solving this type of crime in Ramsey County.”

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