I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again now; return fraud is one of the biggest fraud schemes affecting retailers right now. This fraud can occur in so many different ways, it’s almost overwhelming to the stores. Individuals can simply walk into the store and grab merchandise; if a cashier isn’t paying attention, a refund can be given to that individual. Thieves will also steal from one store, then immediately drive to the next closest store to return the stolen goods for store credit. Even more brazen thieves will steal the product from the store, go out to their car and then immediately return to that very same store and get a refund for the merchandise THEY JUST STOLE!. It’s a huge issue in my stores that we combat every single day. The only thing that slows down the thieves is our Checkpoint Tags; and that’s been challenged lately as well.
My stores carry a plethora of high end apparel items, so making sure we have security tags on clothes is of the utmost importance. For a long time, this was helping us battle the shoplifters. I once had a large group making fraudulent refunds. It seemed like every day a different person was returning merchandise to one of my stores. It was frustrating as the product that they were targeting was secured with Checkpoint tags. I couldn’t figure out where they were getting the product from and I didn’t understand how my physical security measures weren’t being more effective. Until a very attentive cashier broke the case for me.
At this point, I had identified 10 individuals whom were making large dollar returns on a specific pair of athletic pants. Since it takes almost no effort to place security tags on clothes, I made sure to instruct all my stores to tag these pants. They were a bit under the normal threshold for tagging, but we were getting slammed with theft. Weeks went by and I kept seeing return after return from this same group. It would always be a different suspect, but they would all get out of the same, very distinctive vehicle (think small car with 37” rims), so I knew they were all connected. What I didn’t know was how they were connected and how they were beating me.
One afternoon, I received a phone call from a cashier at one of my stores. This cashier had just processed another return for someone from this group and she noticed something was amiss. After the suspect left the store, the cashier very carefully inspected the clothing. She noticed that there was a small hole in the fabric where the Checkpoint tag should’ve been. Since the fabric was stretch-fit, it was very difficult to see. Without realizing it, this cashier helped me to bust this case wide open!
After that phone call, I started calling managers at every store that had recently been targeted. I made them pull any recent returns and inspect them for damage. Sure enough there were holes in every pair in the exact position where the hard tags were once placed. This group had been cutting a very small hole in the stretchy fabric. They were then able to stretch the hole over the hard tag, causing only minimal damage. It was almost impossible to see, but the evidence was there. Sometimes, putting security tags on clothes simply isn’t enough.
After a few more weeks, the long arm of the law finally caught up with this group. We found out that the ring leader was a heroin dealer, and the owner of that classy looking car. He would get users to steal and make the refunds for him in order to pay for the drug. He would then sell the store credits to local pawnshops. Detectives were able to make a very strong case against him by using testimony from several of those caught. Not only did he go down for conspiracy, organized retail crime and felony shoplifting, when he was apprehended, he had a large amount of heroin in his possession. He was eventually sentenced to life in prison. (At the time, my state had a mandatory life sentence for anyone convicted of distributing heroin). All of that from something as simple as a cashier noticing a hole where a Checkpoint Tag should’ve been.
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