A new black market
GREENWICH — When Greenwich police officers went to a New Jersey jail last week to pick up a prisoner, a 24-year-old Manhattan man with a lengthy rap sheet, and book him on charges of stealing pricey purses and other high-end merchandise on Greenwich Avenue, they were on a well-worn path.
Over the past several years, Greenwich police have made numerous arrests of aggressive shoplifters stealing expensive purses from stores on the Avenue. In September of 2017, a Greenwich police officer grappled with one of three suspects who tried to steal handbags from Saks The Vault on Greenwich Avenue, blocking their escape. They were later charged with robbery, criminal attempt at larceny, assault on a police officer and criminal mischief
Greenwich retailers and cops are hardly alone in confronting well-organized gangs targeting purses and other luxury items.
In Palo Alto, Calif., late last year, a Nordstrom store was hit by a group of thieves armed with box and wire cutters, making off with an estimated $111,779 in Gucci handbags. In May of 2018, thieves hit the King of Prussia Mall outside Philadelphia and stole more than 40 designer handbags, each valued between $2,500 and $5,000. A crew working in New York City was shut down in 2013 after stealing $700,000 worth of bags from roughly a dozen stores in the city, including Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Chanel.
The trend of targeting pricey handbags might best be explained by a quip from famed bank-robber Willie Sutton — “It’s where the money is” — with a 21st century twist.
The Internet has opened a new market for the sale of stolen merchandise, according to law enforcement and retail experts. The term they use is “e-fencing,” which thieves have found is a better way to sell stolen goods than earlier fencing methods.
“It’s become much more profitable than it was 10 or 15 years ago because of the Internet,” said Det. Mark Solomon, the Greenwich Police Department’s lead investigator on cyber and financial crimes.
“With this high-end merchandise — bags and winter coats and fragrances — these items can be resold online for 80 to 90 percent of their actual retail price. In the old days, you’d steal something, and bring it down to (a local market), you’d get 30, 40, 50 percent. And they’re in demand,” said Solomon, who is also a member of the Connecticut Financial Crime Task Force.
Retail centers like Greenwich are particularly attractive to aggressive rings of thieves.
“We’re a high target area, because we’re right off I-95,” said Solomon. “The I-95 corridor is extremely popular for shoplifting rings and organized theft crews. They’ll go up to New Hampshire and Massachusetts, then come back (to the New York metro area).”
Once stolen, the items can be put up for sale on various websites offering “discounts.”
A high percentage of items touted online as “new in box” or “new with tags” were stolen, according to a study by the National Retail Federation. The NRF found that 56 percent of retailers in a 2017 survey found stolen goods from their stores being re-sold online.
The executive vice president of the Retail Industry Leaders Association, Lisa LaBruno, said safeguards and new technologies are continually being introduced to cut down on retail crime.
“That said, theft and resale is an issue retailers continue to tackle,” she wrote in an email. “Third-party platforms are filled with fly-by-night sellers that may resell stolen or counterfeit merchandise. Online resellers should recognize the problem and the need to be vigilant about what is being resold on their sites.”
The onus is on sites identify stolen products, shut down bogus sales or auctions, and pursue criminal prosecution of offenders, she said.
“We encourage consumers to shop at retailers they know and trust to ensure authenticity and quality assurance,” she said.
Some online sellers, like eBay, are taking the issue seriously.
“eBay is fully committed to providing a safe and secure online shopping experience to millions of people globally,” eBay spokesman Ryan Moore wrote in an email. “Stolen goods are illegal and not welcome on our marketplace.”
The site uses a “combination of sophisticated detection tools, enforcement and strong relationships with brand owners, retailers and law enforcement agencies” to root out crooks, he said.
Other online retailers are less stringent about offering stolen goods, and law enforcement is at a distinct disadvantage in going after e-fencing operations.
“With a lot of merchandise, it’s not like they have serial numbers. Once it’s out of the store, it’s almost impossible to prove it’s been stolen,” said Solomon, of the Greenwich Police Department.
The goal of law enforcement is to make sure purses and jackets are hard to steal in the first place. Greenwich police hosted a two-day conference in November in which 70 police officers, security experts and retailers “talked about the things they can do to minimize ‘shrinkage,’” the industry term for thefts, Solomon said.
Retailers have been instructed to keep high-end merchandise under constant surveillance with cameras or security personnel, and to move it away from exits. Beyond that, the detective said, “training, awareness and reporting” are crucial in the retail sector for dealing with organized shoplifters.
The public can also stay away from sites that are offering “brand new” Chanel purses at lower prices, complete with sales tags. “If the prices are too good to be true,” the detective said, “I suspect those items are probably stolen.”
There are other deterrents to handbag thieves, as well. The suspect picked up by town police in connection with the theft of thousands of dollars in merchandise from a Greenwich Avenue store in 2017, Cleveland Fowler, of New York City, was charged with a felony count of larceny. It carries a prison sentence of one to 10 years.