CHICAGO (WLS) -- Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul is cracking down on retail thefts in Chicago and the suburbs by creating a new task force to target organized hits on retail stores.
Retail theft is often thought of as something that is committed by a couple of people breaking into a store and running off with armfuls of goods. But the criminal activity outlined by Raoul as he announced the creation of the task force designed to combat the ever-increasing problem is far from that.
From smash-and-grabs on Michigan Avenue and State Street to large-scale looting events such as those seen last summer, organized retail theft is on the rise in Illinois, accounting for a staggering $45 billion dollars in losses.
"There is an organized crime aspect to much of today's retail theft and those arrested are often being used as mules at the lowest level of a larger enterprise," Raoul said.
"These people, they have online stores. They have actual stores," Will County State's Attorney Jim Glasgow said.
According to law enforcement, retail theft does not discriminate and criminals target every product line that can be easily monetized. The proceeds are then used to fund other illegal activities, such as human trafficking and narcotics. It's gotten so bad, many large companies employ their own in-house investigation teams. Home Depot recently identified an Illinois man with $50,000 in boxed stolen merchandise inside his home.
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"Think of it more like a governing body that is driving an element into our buildings to commit the actual theft," said Kyle Penoyer, with Home Depot.
Thefts that are also increasingly putting store employees at risk. From 2018 to 2020, CVS Pharmacy reported a 37% increase in retail theft, while the use of a weapon or physical violence during these incidents has doubled.
Along Michigan Avenue, where dozens of these high-profile incidents have taken place over recent years, the concern is its impact on the long-term viability of retail and the neighborhood itself.
"It lends itself to a safety question, a safety environment, that frankly deters tourists and others from spending time not only in the North Michigan Avenue area, but in other retail hubs as well," said Rob Karr, Illinois Retail Merchants Association.
And while similar efforts have been launched in other states across the country, the Organized Crime Retail Taskforce is the first large-scale public/private partnership of its kind in Illinois.
It is the first time organized retail crimes will not be limited by county lines, which could mean more arrests and longer time behind bars.
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