The operation was headed up by a task force made up of county, federal and local authorities, as well as retailers, in order to catch these theft rings in the act, rather than after the fact. "They're very organized. Everybody has a job to do. They know what it is, and they know exactly where the merchandise is going once they get it out of the store," said Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez.
"Operation Whoville," which started in October, focused on theft rings in malls in Orland Park, Schaumburg and North Michigan Avenue. The month-long operation lead to 59 arrests.
Video tape surveillance captured the theives -- sometimes called boosters -- in action, showing how professional shoplifters can steal thousands of dollars in merchandise in just minutes.
"We had a case in Orland Park where they're hitting all the malls, they were taking all of the stolen items to Villa Park, shipping them to Miami and then down to South America," said Chief Timothy McCarthy, Orland Park Police Deparment.
One of those arrested is a Skokie man who's accused of lifting a crystal vase valued at more than $5,000 from a upscale Mag Mile boutique. Two others were arrested in stings at Woodfield Mall and Orland Square mall in Orland Park.
"Boosters, that's their day job -- they go in and steal, and they have a place where they're going to fence the gifts to, often times with shopping lists," David Williams, Cook County State's Attorney's Office.
It is currently estimated Illinois loses $77 million in tax revenue each year because of retail theft and fencing rings. The proceeds are often used to fund other illegal activities.
"What we try to do is target the proceeds from that which may be leaving the country illicitly back to its original source country," said Gary Hartwig, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Homeland Security Investigations.
Authorities say the theft rings endanger public safety and can end up costing the consumer.
"It's going to impact the price of the item that we sell at, because we have to offset for all the theft that occurs," said Seth Hughes, Target.
Authorities say in addition to the 59 arrests, t also recovered tens of thousands of dollars worth of stolen merchandise, including clothing, jewelry, small electronics and over-the-counter drugs.
Investigators say they plan to study the patterns of these shoplifting crews to help them prevent future thefts.