Organized crime rings are swiping perfume and electronics, hitting multiple stores in a single day. They steal cellphones and ship them to Asia for big profits. They use fake credit cards and increasingly elaborate schemes to steal money from gift cards.

Now police and businesses leaders have formed the Twin Cities Organized Retail Crime Association (TCORCA) to better share information across the region and catch criminals in what is becoming an increasingly complex and organized brand of stealing.

“The way that we should be tackling crime as a whole is by making sure we come at it from an organized crime perspective,” said St. Paul Police Sgt. Charlie Anderson.

Last week, federal authorities in Minneapolis announced indictments against nine people accused of trafficking at least $3.8 million in stolen cellular devices that were shipped to Hong Kong. Anderson helped unravel the scam with coordination from retailers and law enforcement agencies, an effort that preceded the formation of the group.

We are trying to have “a systematic approach,” Anderson said. “We can’t do these investigations alone or we would fail.”

The nonprofit organization was formed late last year by a group of law enforcement, corporate fraud and loss prevention investigators, as well as prosecutors.

The group hosts a private website where members can share immediate retail crime alerts to identify offenders and to target criminal enterprises.

Bruce Nustad, president of the Minnesota Retailers Association, said the group is a “great tool” to combat crime. A national survey found more than 88 percent of retailers report being a victim of organized crime in the past year.

“Today’s criminal activity, especially on an organized level, has become extremely sophisticated and it really requires a real-time collaboration between retailers, financial institutions, and law enforcement,” Nustad said.

During a TCORCA meeting recently in West St. Paul, the 200 attendees included police and loss-prevention professionals sharing information and learning about organized retail crime trends.

Attendees got a presentation about different modes of gift card fraud.

In some of the more sophisticated schemes, thieves are stealing unused gift cards, copying the cards’ codes and putting the cards back in the stores. Then they steal the balance when the cards are activated.

In one case, attendees discussed incidents involving two Twin Cities women whom authorities say would walk through a store detector with hundreds of dollars worth of stolen clothing crammed in their purses as one of their 8-year-old sons would wear a hat or take another item with a security tag that would set off the alarm. The women would apologize for the boy and then continue out of the store with their stolen goods undetected.

A few people in the room said they had seen the women before, everywhere from east St. Paul to Bloomington to Inver Grove Heights.

The organization allows investigators from different jurisdictions to “put a face to a name” and talk with one another, said Heidi Miller, an officer with the Bloomington police. “It’s networking and getting to know individuals.”

A couple of years ago, officer Adam Sack started to see a pattern of shoplifting arrests in the Woodbury stores he monitored.

These criminal rings were organized and would sometimes hit multiple towns in a day, stealing similar merchandise.

However, prosecutors were only able to apprehend them in their respective jurisdictions. Often the offenders would plead to minor charges and would be right back out on the street, Sack said.

“It wasn’t just a jurisdictional problem, it was a whole statewide, regional problem,” Sack said. “These offenders were taking advantage of this lack of communication between jurisdictions.”

With the group’s help, Sack was able to investigate four suspects who had stolen $7,000 worth of perfumes from beauty supply stores. Through his connections, Sack was able to reach out to other agencies and discovered that the group was based in Milwaukee and had been suspected of stealing about $30,000 worth of fragrances from stores across Minnesota, Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa. Charges are pending.

“If we hadn’t had that giant contact list, … I wouldn’t have had anything to go on for this case,” Sack said.


Twitter: @nicolenorfleet