Feds bust shoplifting ring they say pilfered $20 million from U.S. clothing retailers

Associated Press

U.S. authorities announced Wednesday they broke up a San Diego-based shoplifting ring that stole more than $20 million in goods from popular clothing stores across the country and sold the stolen merchandise in Mexico.

Stores targeted included Abercrombie & Fitch, Banana Republic and Victoria's Secret at malls from Schaumburg, Ill., to Las Vegas and San Diego, according to an indictment that was made public.

Federal officials charged 22 people, including three already in custody and 12 others arrested Wednesday in the San Diego area. U.S. and Mexican officials are searching for seven others.

The ring operated since at least 2005, according to investigators. Its U.S. members smuggled in acquaintances from Mexico who had previously been deported to help steal, said Dave Shaw of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations.

"This is the first time I've seen people being brought in for something like this," he said.

Authorities found piles of Louis Vuitton shoes and bags of discarded security sensors in searches of three San Diego-area homes Wednesday.

Authorities also seized $30,000 in cash and a dozen large trash bags full of clothing — some with tags and security devices still attached — from Victoria's Secret, Hollister Co., Guess, Express and Abercrombie & Fitch. The brands ranged from Calvin Klein, Hurley and Armani to Adidas, Kenneth Cole and Puma.

Organized crime costs U.S. retailers nearly $30 billion a year, according to the National Retail Federation. In recent years, large shoplifting rings have been broken up in Texas, New Mexico and other states.

The defendants from the San Diego area formed teams of thieves to steal from retail stores, with each team member assigned a specific role.

Some used "booster bags," shopping bags with metallic linings to block anti-theft sensors. Others distracted employees or used their bodies to block their view during the thefts, according to investigators.

One defendant grabbed a security officer by the throat and threw her to the ground while running from a theft at Abercrombie & Fitch at a mall in National City, a city south of San Diego, in 2013, investigators said.

Most of the goods were sold in stores and by sellers across the border in Tijuana, Mexico, officials said.

The defendants arrested were in custody and could not be reached for comment Wednesday. They were scheduled to make their first appearance in court Thursday.

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