Gov. Ned Lamont and Attorney General William Tong were in West Hartford Wednesday morning announcing an effort to work with ‘big tech’ to address organized retail crime.
By Ronni Newton
Attorney General William Tong and Gov. Ned Lamont announced Wednesday morning that the state is creating a task force, in partnership with government, businesses, law enforcement, and neighboring states, to focus on organized retail crime.
Standing in the middle of CVS on New Britain Avenue in the Elmwood section of West Hartford, against a backdrop of shampoo, deodorant, and toothpaste, Tong said he’s not talking about “everyday shoplifting or petty theft.” The type of crime that is becoming all-too-common involves multiple levels of operatives – low level criminals being organized by mid-level criminals, who report to the “bigger bosses who are putting people out on the street in these smash and grab operations in stores across our country and here in Connecticut.”
This type of crime accounts for more than $70 billion in retail losses across the country, and in Connecticut it has cost an estimated 8,000 jobs and resulted in $169 million in lost tax revenue, Tong said. “They are stealing large volumes of everyday goods and selling them mostly online.”
What’s needed is to cut off the demand, “and stop the flow of these goods through the major online and social media platforms,” said Tong. He and other officials are calling on the major platforms to work hand-in-hand with state and local law enforcement to stop the demand and the flow.
The Attorney General’s office will use its civil investigative and law enforcement resources along with other state partners to put pressure on online platforms like Amazon and Facebook Marketplace that are moving products that can be stolen from retailers like CVS, and stop those who are fencing stolen goods on their platforms, Tong said.
Retail employees “should not be forced to bear the risk of somebody coming to their store, knocking off their store, potentially hurting them, injuring them, potentially doing great damage to their families and to places that they work,” Tong said. “This is about more than business losses … it’s about personal safety.”
Tom Moriarity, general counsel for CVS, as well as representatives from Home Depot, Lowes, and Connecticut Food Association President Wayne Pesce also attended the press conference.
“This is not you run-of-the mill shoplifting,” Moriarity said. “It hits at every community across the state and it impacts every consumer.” CVS is working with law enforcement locally, across the state, and nationally, he said.
“We have seen over a 300% increase in this type of activity since the onset of the pandemic,” he said. “This is a two-headed monster. It is the organized retail crime element of it and it’s also the online retailers and the ease with which these criminals can resell their stolen wares.”
The proceeds, in turn, fund other illicit activity like human trafficking, Moriarity said. “It is a real issue that every citizen, every consumer, should take seriously.”
West Hartford Police Chief Vernon Riddick praised CVS for doing a good job deterring crime, with visible cameras, greeters at the entrance, and by placing high end items in the back of the store.
“All of these things assist another tool in the toolbox for law enforcement,” he said. Riddick also urged workers not to intervene for a property crime but rather to contact police and provide as much descriptive information as possible.
“Crime apprehension and prosecution is extremely important which is why this task force will help us tremendously,” Riddick said. “The enterprise starts at the local level.”
Pesce added that the increased presence of police cars in parking lots of brick and mortar retailers is a good deterrent, especially during the holiday season, and said the Connecticut Food Association will be working closely with the task force. “This is not a problem that is isolated to Connecticut, it is happening across the country,” he said.
Brian Foley of the state’s Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection said these types of thefts are not new. A Hartford “flash mob” robbery in 2016 is one example, and more recently an incident in Oxford, CT, where more than $1,600 of merchandise was stolen from a grocery store, garnered national attention. “In both those cases video cameras stopped absolutely nobody but they did exactly what they were supposed to do – gather evidence reliably, impartially, and deliver it to the police officers.”
Fencing of stolen cigarettes has long been an organized effort, but what’s different now is “it’s showing up online where they’re being resold,” Foley said. Trained detectives from the state police know how to access Facebook Marketplace, to investigate computer crimes, he said.
Foley also urged consumers not to stop someone who is committing a theft but if possible to use a cellphone to capture who is doing it and information about their vehicle.
“This is a problem that consumers themselves really need to be engaged with,” Department of Consumer Protection Michelle Seagull said. She urged consumers to look for warning signs that a product is stolen, to research the name of the company from which you’re purchasing something.
“Run it in a Google search with ‘fraud’ or ‘scam,'” Seagull said. “You want to be suspicious if you’re getting a deal on something and it just seems too good to be true.” If a business won’t give much detail, or share their return policy, those are red flags, she said.
“It’s really important that we do our role to protect legitimate businesses, the legitimate workers there so that we have this safe marketplace to interact with,” Seagull said.
“This is about not your grandmother’s shoplifting, but this is organized criminal activity,” Lamont said. “This is not onesies or twosies taking some things out for personal use.”
The task force will focus on supply and demand – cameras, stopping the demand, creating accountability. “But we want to go after the big fish. I want to go after these wholesalers, I want to go after these gangs, these organizations that are doing this, turning this into billion dollar theft enterprise,” Lamont said.
Mass marketing stolen goods on anonymous online marketplaces, “that is going to stop,” the governor said. “This is a cyber theft as well,” he said, and is being allowed by the big tech companies which is part of what the task force will address.
“This is a really important step,” Lamont said.
“I appreciate the interest and the support in keeping our community safe, our businesses safe,” West Hartford Mayor Shari Cantor said, thanking CVS for being the host, and for their work in the community providing vaccines, boosters, and COVID tests.
“The safety of our residents and our business community is paramount,” state Rep. Kate Farrar of West Hartford said. “The key here … is partnership,” she said, noting positive effects from other regional task forces. “I really encourage our online retailers … to step up and ensure not just a solution in the short term but in the long term.”
State Sen. Derek Slap said people are anxious and want to know what is being done to make them safer. “This partnership right now is going to, I believe, really move the needle” through adding a level of sophistication to the effort,” he said. “I do believe that this is going to deliver some real tangible results for our constituents.”
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