PASSAIC COUNTY, N.J. — Every day in Paramus, one of the biggest retail outlets in the country, a team of police officers pursues a little-known but financially destructive group of organized criminals.
The thieves include "boosters," lookout "spotters" and "mules" who carry aluminum-lined bags stuffed with stolen merchandise out of retail stores, and drivers who wait to whisk them away.
Among the criminals' tools: high-grade aluminum foil and industrial duct tape.
For decades, shoplifters were considered low priority for law enforcement.
But reported losses have reached an estimated $30 billion a year, a mounting cost of business that retailers say they pass on to customers. So local police - and even federal authorities - are fighting back.
Nowhere is that effort more concerted than in Paramus, where a special unit patrols three malls and a host of major retail outlets.
"What Paramus is doing is not what we are finding in most of the country," said Robert McCrie, a national security consultant and law and police science professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. "But what they are doing is entirely logical.
Police from Wayne patrol the Willowbrook Mall and other shopping centers in town, but the department doesn't concentrate on organized crews.
"We don't dedicate our manpower to that when we don't know if we'll be lucky or not," said Wayne Deputy Police Chief John Reardon. "But we have been successful on occasion in catching people with booster bags."
Last year, Paramus police arrested a two-woman booster crew from Manhattan who they said had swiped nearly $4,500 worth of clothes and lingerie from several stores at the Garden State Plaza, including Ann Taylor, Macy's and Banana Republic. Officers had seen the duo transferring items into large duffel bags from their purses - which, it turns out, were lined with aluminum.
A few months later, borough detectives busted a booster crew from Connecticut, after Nordstrom security spotted a woman shuttling bags of stolen clothing out of the store. Police found $6,000 worth of clothes stacked inside the thieves' vehicle. Most still had the anti-theft sensors attached.
Paramus anti-crime officers, an average of five at a time, are stationed in and around the shopping centers every day. They look for telltale shoplifting signs ? overstuffed bags, too-thick handles, piles of loose merchandise tossed into vehicles. They sometimes stroll the malls in plainclothes or cruise the parking lots in unmarked cars. They communicate often with mall security.
"We look at how people are acting when they walk to their vehicle and how quickly they stuff their bags in their trunk," Lt. Robert Guidetti said.
On a recent night, the officers followed two young women, one carrying an infant, who were suspected of swiping a wallet from Kenneth Cole in the Garden State Plaza. Store surveillance cameras had captured the theft, but security officers had lost sight of the pair. About 15 minutes later, the women walked out of Neiman Marcus with a large red bag. Spotting a plainclothes officer, they darted back inside. They emerged a few minutes later without the bag.
Like a narcotic squad on a stakeout, the anti-crime officers slowly followed the women in the parking lot, carefully keeping their distance in unmarked cars.
"I think they saw me, so I gotta lay low," Guidetti said into his Nextel. "See if you can follow."
The women climbed into a red sport utility vehicle that peeled out - trailed by four unmarked vehicles.
Police surrounded and stopped the pair before they could reach the highway. Inside a blue diaper bag they found several stolen bras, shoes and pants. The red bag had been left near a dressing room, with nearly $1,300 worth of jeans, shirts and tube tops taken from three stores inside.
It was considered a routine catch for the unit. Yet the officers had larger targets in mind.
"We concentrate on organized theft crews because they do so much damage," said Guidetti. "What they do affects everyone ? retailers, consumers, the federal government - because they pay no taxes. The money that is made doing this is sick."
The Newport Center Mall in Jersey City made national news last month after a trio of thieves was caught on video stealing nearly 200 bras and 145 panties valued at $15,500 from the Victoria's Secret. That same week, nearly the same amount of underwear was taken from a Victoria's Secret in Westfield.
"The problem is huge, and it isn't getting the attention it needs," said Angelica Rodriguez, loss-prevention director for the Washington, D.C.-based National Retail Federation. "But we are seeing more and more law enforcement agencies starting to pay attention."
Local police aren't the only ones: Last month, the FBI created a federal database so that retailers - and eventually local authorities - will be able to keep track of organized shoplifting gangs.
New Jersey's Legislature last year stiffened fines for anyone convicted of participating in an "organized retail theft enterprise." What was once a petty offense is now a second-degree crime if the merchandise is valued at over $1,000. Conviction can mean five to 10 years in prison.
The crews sell the stolen items to fencing operations, most of them in Queens or Paterson, that pay 20 percent to 25 percent on the dollar, Guidetti said. The fencing operations sell the merchandise from home, illegal stores or on the Internet, often for half the sticker price, he said. "It's a profitable enterprise," he said.
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