Could you have a “Smash-and-Grab” Christmas? – InsideSources

The videos are shocking: Gangs of criminals are swarming high-end stores like Nordstrom and Louis Vitton and brazenly come out with thousands of dollars in jewelry, handbags and luxury goods. Everything is videotaped, and often under the watchful eyes of store security.

Even more shocking? The person behind this crime could be you.

Many Americans have been appalled by the upsurge in armed robberies, blaming lax laws or local prosecutors who have announced they are not filing complaints in shoplifting cases. But experts in crime, counterfeiting and illicit trade say the current surge is fueled by consumer demand.

Jay Kennedy is the deputy director of research for the Center for Anti-Counterfeiting and Product Protection at Michigan State University, and he says the peak in these thefts is a “supply-side” problem. Criminals respond to customer demand.

“These organized groups are working at the behest of other actors who say, ‘Hey, here’s a list of products. Come in and take these things. And then they end up being sold through normal e-commerce platforms, ”Kennedy said. These products can range from high-end jewelry to fashion handbags to prescription drugs, sold to unsuspecting buyers across the United States.

Kennedy was a panelist at the recent United to Safeguard America from Illegal Trade (USA-IT) summit in Washington, DC. Leaders from law enforcement and targeted industries gathered to exchange information on how to tackle illicit trade and the impact it now has on the U.S. economy.

And while the COVID-19 pandemic may have exacerbated the problem, it didn’t start with the virus.

“Organized crime in retail has increased by at least 60% over the past five years, according to the National Retail Federation,” said Rob Karr of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, who also attended the USA summit. -IT.

Thanks to the popularity and ease of shopping on the Internet, this amount of stolen and counterfeit goods goes straight to your laptop.

From cargo thefts (a single container can hold 400 flat-screen TVs or 2,400 boxes of sneakers) to local armed robberies and counterfeit goods from international criminal gangs, the products are bought and sold online every year. day.

Gangs that profit from the “victimless crime” of selling illicit goods are often the same criminal element behind gun violence in Chicago or human trafficking in Central America.

For decades, criminal gangs have sold counterfeit goods as part of the black market economy which, in 2019 alone, “robbed the US economy of. 131 billion dollars and 325,500 jobs, ”according to USA-IT. In the past, the bottleneck for stolen or counterfeit goods was distribution: what do you do with valuables after you steal them? How to turn them into cash?

The Internet has solved this problem, allowing criminals to use websites like Amazon, eBay, and Etsy as “electronic fencing” to transfer their stolen goods directly to buyers. It also helped illicit trade criminals, who focused on products like cigarettes, distilled spirits and illegal drugs, gain a foothold in more mainstream sectors of the economy.

“The problem is, these are legitimate goods. It’s not like it’s a counterfeit that can be identified as a counterfeit by the online retailer and removed, ”Kennedy said. “Stolen goods can be resold as legitimate, allowing the reseller to go unnoticed. “

Police sources confirm Kennedy’s analysis. Organized crime gangs are behind the wave of armed robberies at luxury stores in California and Illinois. Ben Dugan, chairman of the Coalition of Law Enforcement and Retail, said gangs recruited people between $ 500 and $ 1,000 to steal specific merchandise from stores and then sell them online.

When COVID-19 sent a generation of older Americans home from the mall to shop on their laptops, criminals were ready to take advantage of their lack of online knowledge. However, according to law enforcement experts at the USA-IT summit, illicit web commerce has become so sophisticated that even experienced online shoppers could purchase stolen or counterfeit Christmas gifts this year without even knowing it. .

“At a recent event for the MSU Anti-Counterfeiting Center, we handed out branded promotional items,” Kennedy said. “One of our partners came up to us and said, ‘Hey, our logo is on that. We did not manufacture this. It was a fake.

Because the problem is so widespread and overlaps so much, Hernan Albamonte of Phillip Morris International says the issues of stolen and counterfeit goods shouldn’t be treated as separate issues. They are the same gangs and the same distribution networks, the profits financing the same crime, the same violence and the same terrorism.

“We need a national strategy against illicit trade and organized crime, we need a coordinated effort,” Albamonte said at the USA-IT summit. It means both government enforcement – he calls the United States the “gold standard” for enforcement efforts – and private companies like his working together.

“At Philip Morris International, we’ve been fighting illicit trade for over 20 years. We have a global team of 80 professionals from all over the world who fight only against criminal organizations and terrorist groups that finance their activities through the illicit trade, ”said Albamonte.

The biggest challenge right now, these experts agreed, is consumer demand. Suffocated supply chains, more online shopping and the attitude of some consumers that buying one or two fake or ‘hot’ products isn’t a big deal – all of these combine to make very rich criminals.

“People who buy the counterfeit bag or the stolen sneakers say, ‘What is this? “Well, you don’t know where your money is going,” Kennedy said. “It could be used to fund human trafficking, drug trafficking or other transnational criminal organizations.”

The solutions? One is to convince average shoppers not to be part of the problem, to pass up the ‘too good to be true’ online offering for the sake of crime victims and legitimate businesses that are harmed by the trade. .

The other, according to Albamonte, is execution. “Right now, these crimes are ‘low risk, high reward.’ We need to change that. We need to make this activity less attractive to criminals, and the way to do that is to seek prosecution and severe penalties.

“Because otherwise this business will continue to be extremely profitable.”

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