CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A ring of thieves accused of stealing millions of dollars worth of merchandise from stores in the Charlotte area was recently busted in a heavily armed takedown, but the community could end up paying the price for their crimes.
The thieves were shoplifting over-the-counter drugs from stores like Walgreens, CVS and Target. And while shoplifting sounds harmless, it amounted to big bucks and a potentially violent showdown.
The crime — shoplifting — sounds simple. It's anything but, investigators say.
"What it involves is organized shoplifting on a massive scale," Michael Prado, Deputy Special Agent in Charge with Homeland Security Investigations in Charlotte, said.
The numbers are shocking.
"Roughly $5 million in loss to these companies and ultimately the consumer," Prado said.
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Investigators allege the thieves targeted busy stores, including CVS, Walgreens, Publix, Target and Walmart, across the Charlotte area, stealing over-the-counter drugs and selling them online. They racked up more than $5 million in stolen goods over the last three years, according to investigators.
Dozens of people worked together to steal from all these places, police say. It's called organized retail theft and investigators say Jeremy Huffman, a man from Kings Mountain, North Carolina, was the ring leader.
"This is organized in every sense of the word," Prado said. "People are recruited to participate in these rings. They're very good at what they do and cause major economic loss to retailers, which is passed on to the consumer."
Retail theft costs the U.S. economy an estimated $127.5 billion a year. That translates to about 658,000 lost jobs or a 0.5% increase in unemployment. And it's a growing problem, rising 26% in 2021 from the year before.
"Those companies, while they're competitors, they do work collaboratively to try to prevent organized theft that harms the economy and harms their bottom line," Prado explained.
Investigators used surveillance footage and photos to piece together the group and landed on Huffman as the so-called ring leader. Detectives said some of the suspects involved had "significant" violent criminal histories.
A team made up of dozens of law enforcement officers executed four search warrants simultaneously last month in an effort to arrest Huffman. They recovered more than $167,000 in stolen drugs and an arsenal of 28 weapons that included multiple assault rifles, silencers and 20,000 rounds of ammunition.
Huffman is charged under a new North Carolina law just passed this year that makes retail theft a more serious crime. Investigators described the bill as "forward-leaning" amongst states, with North Carolina leading the way to prevent retail theft.
Another way retailers are cracking down on theft is by restricting return policies, making it harder for customers to return items that were purchased, even with a receipt.
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