ANJ Investigates

Action News Jax Investigates: What is organized retail theft and how does it cost you a fortune?

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — There’s a new kind of theft in Jacksonville on the rise, and to call it stealing would be an understatement.

In organized retail crime, thieves, or a large group of them, walk into a store and steal a large amount of merchandise before leaving. Then, law enforcement say, they sell it for money.

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Action News Jax Investigator Emily Turner found out that retail theft has doubled in Jacksonville in just a year. Its cost is in the millions and has become such an issue that the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office has created an entire division dedicated to fighting it.

Across the country, organized retail thieves are responsible for billions in lost merchandise. They are why some stores have moved out of downtown San Francisco, and Walmart is threatening to shut down in the areas hardest hit.

Jacksonville shopper Brittany Waters saw it happen at the Town Center Ulta store and couldn’t believe it.

“They weren’t in any sort of rush or anything,” she said. “They kind of just did it nonchalant, and then, the lady that worked there, she was like, ‘They come and do this all the time.’”

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Action News Jax obtained video of the same thing happening at an Ulta in Nassau County. You see a group of people walk into the store with backpacks, duffel bags and purses and load them up with high ticket items like designer perfumes and makeup.

At the Town Center, Brittany says the thieves “were bold.”

“They weren’t afraid of anybody saying anything to them …They just filled up their bags while alarms are going off and walked right out the door with like, lots of products,” she said.

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What they are doing, police say, goes beyond petty theft. It’s organized crime. To fight it, JSO created an economic crimes unit in 2021. It specifically deals with organized retail theft. Lt. Mark Musser is in charge of the unit and said that the crime is bigger than you’d think.

“Quite often, those investigations lead to other parts of the state or even nationally and sometimes internationally,” Musser said.

In 2021, Musser said JSO cases totaled at about one quarter of a million dollars in lost merchandise, and that’s just from Jacksonville stores. This past year, that number doubled, out pacing the nationwide trend of 26.5%, according to the National Retail Federation.

“Most offenses, you’re generally as a group five or six people, who get together and they start, but as they get more successful and they realize there’s money to be made, they may start recruiting more people to try to expand their operation,” Musser explained.

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In December, JSO arrested Tarvaris Kelley for coordinated retail theft. Police reports said that he stole more than $70,000 from Jacksonville stores like Walmart, Kohls and Ulta. Then, the report said he hopped in a U-Haul with the stolen goods and a getaway driver.

Action News Jax found out that he has been arrested for similar crimes in Volusia County previously. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce said that people like Kelley cost the retail industry dearly.

Neil Bradley is the executive Vice President and said, “Organized retail theft cost retailers $700,000 for every billion in sales.”

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It might seem like the victims are big box stores that can afford to take the loss, but Bradley said that it’s happening at such a rate that retailers can’t afford to do business as usual.

“It means the prices that you and I pay, what law abiding citizens pay for the things that we buy every day, go up even higher, offsetting those losses from all of that theft,” he said.

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So, all those stores will be passing along their costs to the consumer or closing their doors, and people like Brittany will have fewer shopping options and pay higher prices.

“It’s kind of frustrating,” Brittany said, “because I work really hard to make my money to buy things, and they just walk in and take whatever.”

The National Retail Federation blames the recent jump in theft on changes to state law. In 2019, for example, Florida lawmakers raised the required amount stolen to be a felony from $350 to $750. Less than two years later, the jump in organized retail crime reached a level requiring them to create its own division.

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