American Greed

The American Greed Report: Don’t get stuck with stolen goods: These are the most trafficked items

Alan Weller | Bloomberg | Getty Images

These are busy times in the shoplifting industry.

Yes, we said industry. What used to be thought of as petty theft is now a $30 billion a year business that retailers and law enforcement call "organized retail crime." It features roving bands of shoplifters, midlevel operatives who fence the stolen goods, and bosses who control the enterprise.

"It's definitely the biggest problem retailers face," said Robert Moraca, Vice President of Loss Prevention at the National Retail Federation.

Rico Vendetti of Rochester, New York, profiled in the latest episode of "American Greed", had the drill down pat. From his apartment above the tavern he owned, Vendetti controlled a retail crime ring whose foot soldiers—professional shoplifters known in the industry as "boosters"—stole an estimated $700,000 worth of merchandise from big box stores and supermarkets. Then Vendetti and his team sold the goods online.

The key to the business is the numbers, says FBI Special Agent Eric Sakovics.

"It's a very large number of these boosters who would steal anything from a TV to flea medicine. They bring them back to him, and then he would resell it. And in this case, he was reselling it 50 cents on the dollar for retail value online," Sakovics said.

But here is the good part, Sakovics said. "He would pay his boosters 25 cents (on the dollar). So he was a making a 25 percent profit off retail value."

The business model is fairly typical of retail crime rings across the country. Which items are most in demand by shoplifting rings these days?

"The most valuable to them are things like designer apparel, anything with a brand name," Moraca said. "And then they move to high-end handbags, because they're high value and they're easy to move, and then we move into electronics, and that's laptop computers, iPads, cell phones, and all the accessories that go with that."

A common thread is the size of the items. Because it turns out that in order to really make it big in retail crime, you have to think small.

"There's items like razors, men's and women's razors, and then there's teeth whitening strips, because those items are costly, and they're not that big, where they can get a lot of them off the shelf," Moraca said. "And then last but not least, for about the last decade, believe it or not, laundry detergent."

Moraca explains that liquid laundry soap is popular among shoplifters because it can be sold anywhere—even from the trunk of a car. It is the same reason that baby formula is popular, and that can be dangerous.

"That has to be stored at a certain temperature, it has an expiration date. Cosmetics are in the same realm there; they have expiration dates. So if those things are not stored properly, they can end up being a health hazard for the end consumer."

Big name online marketplaces like eBay, once criticized by retailers for not doing enough to weed out stolen goods, have gotten much better at working with law enforcement and retailers, Moraca says. The problem is the proliferation of smaller marketplaces and auction sites, coupled with consumers looking for great deals.

To protect yourself, check the packaging. Damaged serial numbers or mismatched labels can be telltale signs.

Also, beware of unusually low prices. Sure, a bargain is tempting, but not if the merchandise has been stolen. Besides, every piece of stolen merchandise costs retailers money, and the retailers pass those costs on to you. So while you may be getting a good price now, you will pay the price later on.

Go shopping with retail crime boss Rico Vendetti, and see how one of his capers turned deadly, on the all-new "American Greed" -- Monday, Feb. 27 at 10P ET/PT only on CNBC.