The rise of organized retail crime is a national issue that threatens to overburden local law enforcement. While the American public reads about smash-and-grab robberies or watches shocking footage of their favorite retailers being ransacked and wrecked, it is up to our local police forces to pick up the pieces.
Almost 70% of storefronts reported an increase in theft this year, according to the Coalition of Law Enforcement and Retail, and organized retail crime is estimated to account for $45 billion in annual retail losses. In one instance alone, in February 2021, a group boldly grabbed $165,000 worth of handbags from the shelves of a Chanel store in New York during a daytime robbery.
Why has there been such a sudden increase in crime sprees in recent years? Historically, when times are tough, organized retail crime rises. Retail theft increased by 16 percent after 9/11 and by 30 percent during the 2008 recession, according to US court statistics. It’s no surprise that, in the midst of a protracted pandemic and crippling inflation, we’re seeing a similar, albeit accelerated, trend.
But what makes today’s organized retail crime wave more pervasive and problematic than ever is where these stolen goods may end up once they’ve been swiped from store shelves. The days of pawning stolen goods on street corners and flea markets are over; instead, criminals are turning to the anonymity of the internet to sell their wares. Stolen items are appearing on virtual marketplaces that consumers use on a daily basis, seamlessly blending in with legitimate online storefronts and businesses.
It has become increasingly difficult for law enforcement units to keep up with the rise of organized retail crime, which endangers both retail employees and customers. Staffing shortages, budget cuts, and a dramatic increase in violent crime — estimated by the FBI to be 5.6 percent in 2020 — are all to blame. In many American cities, police may be physically exhausted from chasing, mitigating, and arresting thieves, shooters, and murderers. There simply aren’t enough resources for these precincts to devote to monitoring the entirety of the internet.
That is why federal legislation such as the INFORM Consumers Act (H.R. 5502), or the Integrity, Notification, and Fairness in Online Retail Marketplaces for Consumers Act (H.R. 5502), could be a valuable and necessary tool. It’s the least Congress can do to assist law enforcement in their efforts to combat organized retail crime online. The bill requires online marketplaces to clearly disclose to consumers the contact information of certain high-volume, third-party sellers and to provide consumers with methods to report suspicious marketplace activity. The requirements would be enforced by the Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general.
This means that enacting the INFORM Consumers Act would enable online marketplaces to become more effective partners in tracking and identifying retail theft rings by creating a more transparent and accountable online ecosystem that benefits retailers, consumers, and law enforcement alike. Law enforcement has come out in favor of the bill.
The bottom line is that the rise in organized retail crime is a national problem that requires a national response. Local police departments simply do not have the time or resources to wait for the inconsistency of state legislative attempts to reduce crime.
H.R. 5502, a bipartisan bill supported by both the e-commerce and retail industries, must be included in the final Bipartisan Innovation Act, which is currently being negotiated by House and Senate conferees. This would be a critical step toward universally assisting law enforcement in their primary function: keeping communities safe.