Stolen goods Georgians buy online funds human trafficking and drugs, investigation finds

Retail thieves causing major problems for stores across Georgia

Online buying is soaring because of the pandemic. That’s thrown the door wide open to criminals re-selling vast amounts of stolen goods on popular online marketplaces.

Channel 2′s Tom Regan learned Georgia is in the top ten of a multibillion-dollar criminal enterprise, that often has links to drug and human trafficking.

And it’s not just big-box retailers being targeted by criminals.

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Richard Lukowiak’s family-owned Ace Hardware in John’s Creek has been robbed twice. Back in October, security camera video captured a thief breaking in and snatching thousands of dollars worth of chainsaws. One costing $1,300.

“We found out that he had about eight chainsaws and a concrete saw stolen from us,” Lukowiak told Regan. “The chainsaw market, especially with the hurricane season, chainsaws are in high demand.”

Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr said more than 90% of stores, big and small, are targeted by retail criminals. Many are brazen beyond belief.

“Organized retail crime, it is very simple, people that are organized gangs of individuals who are stealing from brick and mortar stores to sell online,” Carr said. “They will have folks come, take shopping cart loads full of merchandise and run out of the store.”

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The stolen goods soon show up on popular online marketplaces, where you may shop. Carr warns some of the thieves aren’t always acting on their own.

“Interpol, the international law enforcement agency, will tell you that organized retail crime actually has ties to a number of criminal elements, human trafficking, drug trafficking, corruption bribery, you name it,” Carr said. “It’s incredibly frustrating to the business, and it’s frustrating to law enforcement because again this is how a lot of other criminal actives are funded by online sales.”

To crackdown on retail theft, Congress is considering a law that would make online marketplaces, like Amazon and Facebook Marketplace, require a government ID and other information for large resellers. It’s called the INFORM Consumers Act.

“The legislation will also help law enforcement be able to track down and hopefully prosecute those are selling illicit goods to unsuspecting consumers,” explained Michael Hanson with the Buy Safe America Coalition. Buy Safe represents retail and manufacturer groups. “I think the majority of consumers, over 90 percent, don’t want to buy stolen or counterfeit goods.”

In a statement, Amazon said it opposes the INFORM Act:

“Amazon is committed to protecting our customers and our store, and while we appreciate AG Carr’s sentiment, we don’t believe the INFORM Act will effectively curb organized crime because it doesn’t address the root of the issue and risks creating unnecessary red tape for honest entrepreneurs. Amazon already has robust practices to vet prospective sellers and stop bad actors and in 2019, our proactive efforts stopped 2.5 million suspected bad actor accounts.

"This year we began validating prospective sellers' identities via video conferencing making it even more difficult for fraudsters to hide and we now display sellers' business names and addresses on profile pages to help customers make informed shopping decisions.

"Amazon has partnered with law enforcement on multiple cases this year alone to hold bad actors accountable for fraud and continues to support legislative and regulatory efforts that will boost law enforcement resources to better combat organized retail crime. This includes partnership with state retail associations and attorneys general to create and expand taskforces devoted to the investigation and pursuit of those responsible for retail and package theft.

“We continue to work with policymakers on effective policies that can help eradicate fraud from the retail industry, hold bad actors accountable, while also protecting customers and honest entrepreneurs.”

Other online marketplaces, including Facebook, Craigslist, Ebay and Letgo, did not return Channel 2 Action News' request for comment.

But Richard Lukowiak said more must be done.

“It seems right now retail theft is in a crisis. On top of feeling violated, it angers you,” Lukowaik said. “These people need to be caught and they need to be held accountable.”

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