What thieves pick comes down to two attributes: "small box, big value," said Mark Turnage, chief executive of OpSec Security, which has monitored online sites for stolen items on behalf of clients. Commonly stolen items include razor blades, makeup, skincare products, baby formula, over-the-counter medications and tooth-whitening strips. Thieves also lift small gadgets such as disposable cellphones, digital cameras and electric shavers.
Gift-card buyers may be an unwitting link in the retail-theft chain, too. About three-quarters of retailers told the NRF they see thieves returning stolen merchandise to get store credit, which the thieves then sell on the secondary market. Shoppers would encounter those as secondhand gift cards, probably loaded with an odd dollar amount.
Even if you're not concerned about the long-term, broader effect of organized retail theft on your wallet—retailers may account for such losses when setting prices and determining discount promotions—there are plenty of reasons for shoppers to worry right now about whether they're buying stolen goods.
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Health and safety concerns are paramount for ingested goods—including over-the-counter meds and baby formula. "You have no idea what the storage conditions have been," said Turnage. Products may be expired, or have been stored at temperatures too high or low, making them less effective and unsafe to consume, he said.
There's also a slim chance of legal consequences for possessing stolen property. "Certainly, theoretically, someone who buys stolen property from an online vendor is just as liable as someone who buys it out of the back of a truck," said Stuart P. Green, a law professor at Rutgers University. Depending on how the local or state law is written, not knowing it was stolen isn't always a defense.
That said, the odds of being arrested are low. "As a matter of enforcement, it's bound to be harder to pursue people who are doing that," said Green, author of "Thirteen Ways to Steal a Bicycle: Theft Law in the Information Age." Law enforcement is more likely to go after the thieves themselves, as well as the websites facilitating the transaction.