Md. Detective Calls for Internet Controls to Curb Retail Crime

By DAN LAMOTHE, Capital News Service

WASHINGTON - A Montgomery County detective urged a congressional committee to crack down on Internet retail crime Thursday, saying "too many people get off with a slap on the wrist" for organized theft operations.

Officer David Hill, a retail crime specialist, said requiring Web sites like eBay to disclose the serial numbers of items vendors sell would give authorities more options to pursue organizations involved in large-scale retail crime.

"Sophisticated or not, what all of these thieves have in common is they are career criminals usually hired by bulk buyers or ringleaders with specific products in mind," he said. "They have 'shopping lists,' if you will."

The comments came during a hearing of the House Judiciary's crime subcommittee focused on developing a response to organized retail crime, which leads to an estimated $30 billion in losses each year, according to the National Retail Federation.

Hill told the subcommittee that organizations steal items up and down the Interstate 95 corridor. He recalled one college student who was arrested on Dec. 24, 2005, for stealing more than $40,000 in merchandise from 12 stores by swapping UPC codes.

"By his own admission, the student made over $50,000 auctioning off stolen merchandize on eBay," Hill said.

Hill testified along with top officials from three national companies: Target Corp., eBay Inc., and Randall's/Tom Thumb, a Texas-based grocery chain. All four acknowledged that organized retail crime affects is widespread, but they differed on how to handle it.

Brad Brekke, a vice president for Target, said organized retail "gangs' have evolved to the point where they manage their inventory of stolen items, trafficking regularly in consumer electronics, expensive over-the-counter medication, DVDs and baby formula. He agreed with Hill, saying the only way to curb the "explosive" growth of stolen goods online is to require serial numbers.

But Robert Chestnut, a senior vice president for eBay, said requiring serial numbers would put a disproportionate amount of attention on the Internet.

"While some tech-savvy criminals are finding ways to use Internet technologies, sensible solutions should address the entire range of distribution methods," he said.

As things stand, Hill said police departments frequently get tips that stolen items have appeared for sale online, but they have to rely primarily on getting confessions or matching the dates of reported thefts to the dates similar items were posted online.

In written testimony, the Coalition Against Organized Retail Crime said investigations by its member companies have shown that flea markets, swap meets and pawn shops remain the primary venues for selling stolen goods, but the popularity of "e-fencing" has increased because it is profitable.

"It's easy, user-friendly, instantaneous and anonymous and . . . can reach a global audience," said the organization, which includes national retailers like Rite Aid Corp. and Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. An estimated $588 million in merchandise was stolen in Maryland in 2004.

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