Top DHS official warns of 'absolute threat' to public safety, economy from organized retail crime

Groups of criminals are stealing prized items to sell online or elsewhere.

ByMike Levine, Laura Romero and Erielle Reshef ABCNews logo
Thursday, June 1, 2023
Warning about surge in 'organized retail crime'
Federal authorities are sounding the alarm over coordinated robberies as retailers say this type of crime is reaching unprecedented levels.

The surveillance video, from earlier this year, is startling: Four masked men march in a line through a Home Depot store in New York -- two of them looking like menacing bodyguards -- while the two others confidently push carts stacked with almost a hundred boxes of high-value items that they take but never pay for.

When the same crew, allegedly doing the same thing, was approached by a security officer at another Home Depot store nearby, one of the men threatened the guard.

"I'll knock you out. This isn't worth dying for," he said, according to prosecutors.

As Home Depot executives describe it, that New York-area crew is part of a growing threat to Americans across the country: so-called organized retail crime, where groups of criminals steal prized items to sell online or elsewhere.

While this kind of theft has been around for years, retailers say it's reached unprecedented levels, sparking deadly violence at some stores. And federal authorities now warn it's become an "absolute threat" to public safety and public health, declaring that violent gangs, dangerous international crime syndicates, and even groups with suspected ties to terrorism are increasingly dabbling in organized retail crime across the United States.

MORE: Home Depot employee identified as victim shot, killed during shoplifting confrontation

Police have identified the victim in a deadly shooting at a Pleasanton Home Depot during an attempted shoplifting.

"These criminal networks, they may be full-time drug traffickers, but they see an opportunity to work with a crew that's already stealing," said Raul Aguilar, who oversees international organized crime cases for Homeland Security Investigations, the primary investigative arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. "And because it's hundreds of millions of dollars, [the money they make] can easily be diverted for [other] kinds of activities."

'Theft for greed'

"Organized retail crime is what I call theft for greed, not theft for need," said Scott Glenn, vice president for asset protection at The Home Depot, which has been hit hard by organized retail theft. "[But] they don't just come to a Home Depot and then decide to go home ... they go to Target, they go to Lowe's, they go to CVS, they go anywhere."

The groups behind organized retail theft can be expansive -- "like your traditional organized crime families," as Glenn put it -- or, as Aguilar noted, they can be just two or three people working together.

They target stores big and small, and they take whatever they know they can sell -- from power tools and spools of wire worth $3,000, to designer clothes and even medical supplies, officials told ABC News.

"They do a lot of research about what is profitable," Aguilar said. "They have shopping lists."

Glenn said The Home Depot investigated about 400 cases of suspected organized retail theft in the past year alone -- more than one per day -- and that the numbers are "growing double digits year over year."

The National Retail Federation's most recent survey of retailers across the country reported a 26% jump in organized retail crime between 2000 and 2021, amounting to tens of billions of dollars in losses. Home Depot alone loses "billions of dollars a year" to organized retail crime, according to Glenn.

Surveillance video from inside a Home Depot store near New York City shows four men using carts to allegedly steal boxes of valuable items in January 2023. (The Home Depot)

Asked what's behind the recent spike of organized retail crime, Glenn cited two things in particular: the proliferation of masks during the COVID-19 pandemic, which allowed people to stay "a little bit more anonymous," as he put it, and the explosion of online marketplaces, where people can be even more anonymous.

According to the National Retail Federation, online sellers like Amazon and eBay have been particularly popular with retail thieves, but criminals are increasingly using peer-to-peer sites such as Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace, which offer more direct transactions.

'Keeps you up at night'

A Homeland Security Investigations report issued last year said estimates regarding organized retail crime found "the average American family will pay more than $500 annually in additional costs due to the impact."

But there are also much broader -- and potentially more concerning -- implications, according to retailers and law enforcement officials.

"This isn't just shoplifting," noted Aguilar, saying that it impacts the supply chain -- "and that has effect on the economy."

At the stores themselves, according to authorities and retailers, thieves are often armed with guns, knives, bear spray, or even tools taken from store shelves.

"We're starting to see a lot more violent acts taking place," said David Johnston of the National Retail Federation. "It greatly impacts the retailer's ability to keep their environment safe."

At a Home Depot in Pleasanton, California, in April, Blake Mohs, a 26-year-old employee set to be married in August, was fatally shot after he tried to stop a suspected thief. Two people have been arrested on murder charges in the case.

And late last year, 82-year-old Gary Rasor, a retiree working at The Home Depot in Hillsborough, North Carolina, died after being shoved to the ground by an alleged thief, who was then arrested on a murder charge. The case against him is still pending.

MORE: Man charged with murder in assault death of 82-year-old Home Depot worker

Terry McAnthony McMillian Jr., 26, of Durham, was taken into custody Tuesday and charged with first-degree murder and robbery.

"It's unconscionable," Glenn said of the deaths. "That's something that keeps you up at night."

Homeland Security officials are also concerned about who's sometimes behind organized retail theft. Gangs and other dangerous groups, including the Aryan Brotherhood and crime rings from Eastern Europe and South America, have used organized retail theft to raise funds, according to Aguilar. And there are "definitely ties" between certain organized retail thieves and drug-trafficking organizations, including some of the cartels identified by the U.S. government as a global threat, Aguilar said.

In addition, said Aguilar, "some of these networks are tied to the terrorist financing networks around the world."

When pressed for more details, he said, "There's still too many active investigations, so I can't really specifically get into those."

Some media reports and others have questioned whether law enforcement officials and retailers have been exaggerating the scope of organized retail theft and the threat it poses to the U.S. homeland. As far back as 2021, the Los Angeles Times reported that although retail and law enforcement sources cite "eye-popping figures," there is "reason to doubt the problem is anywhere near as large or widespread as they say."

But Aguilar rejected such suggestions, insisting organized retail theft "absolutely is a threat."

'Part of the solution'

Glenn said The Home Depot is looking to stem the tide of organized retail theft by "taking a multifaceted approach": locking up often-targeted items behind cages, launching new forms of technology, and pushing Congress and law enforcement to do more.

Retailers expect the newly-passed INFORM Act, which requires online retailers to verify certain information about their sellers, to help combat the sale of stolen and counterfeit goods -- but they say they also want Congress to allocate funds for a federal task force specifically targeting organized retail crime. The Combating Organized Retail Crime Act, which would establish a coordinated multi-agency response and create new tools to tackle evolving trends in organized retail theft, was introduced by the House of Representatives in February.

"The feds ... actually have some really, really good data-sharing and intelligence-sharing capabilities," Glenn said.

Meanwhile, as local and state authorities try to tackle the issue in their communities with nearly a dozen state task forces, Homeland Security Investigations is "using all of its investigative authorities" to do what it can, Aguilar said.

A Home Depot store in Pleasanton, California, is seen in this undated photo. (Google Maps Street View)

Over the past three years, the agency has tripled the number of cases it's investigating, often using fraud-related and money laundering laws to open cases, he said.

But Aguilar said that to really help stop organized retail crime, consumers need to be "part of the solution."

"I think the first thing they could do is pay attention to what they're buying online," he said, advising consumers to be skeptical of items being sold as new with deep discounts.

"Pay attention to who's selling them, make sure to read the reviews," he said.