Authorities in the state of Florida say they have broken up a major theft ring that may be responsible for stealing millions of dollars in merchandise that was later sold on the Internet. Investigators in Polk County, Florida say 18 people are under arrest -- and more may be involved in what was allegedly one of the biggest shoplifting schemes in recent memory. VOA's Mil Arcega reports.
Florida officials say the two women in a store surveillance video only look like innocent shoppers. In fact, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd says the women were part of one of the most sophisticated shoplifting and reselling rings in the country. "We estimate that they have stolen someplace between $60 and $100 million worth of products."
Investigators say at least 18 people were involved in a five-year scheme that targeted Florida convenience stores.
Judd says all were related to each other in some way -- with members operating in teams of lookouts and grabbers [shoplifters] that could hit as many as eight stores in one day. "In less than three minutes they could walk out with $4,000 -- $4,500 worth of merchandise."
But it was not until authorities discovered a warehouse that they say they realized the size of the alleged theft ring. Inside were thousands of items -- from health and beauty aids to over the counter drugs.
Michelle Schaeffer was stunned to learn a major theft ring was operating in her neighborhood. She said, "That's just incredible. You would think you would see people coming and going but you don't."
Investigators say the stolen goods were sold on Internet websites and on E-Bay, sometimes with free shipping.
"This is not little Johnny stealing a pack of bubble gum or a woman stealing a single shirt. These groups are very organized and very sophisticated and they're stealing merchandise and reselling it to make money," says Joseph Larocca, who is a loss prevention expert for the National Retailers Federation.
Larocca says the Internet has created a worldwide marketplace for criminals. In the past, Larocca says money from similar operations has been used to fund street gangs and in some cases, terror cells in the Middle East.