Air Fryers, Self-Tanner: Cops Seize Web-Bound Stolen Loot

(Bloomberg) -- Police raided a Southern California warehouse filled with an estimated $2 million worth of suspected stolen merchandise they say likely would have ended up on online marketplaces run by Amazon.com Inc. and other retailers.Most Read from BloombergSupreme Court Poised to Allow Emergency Abortions in IdahoSpaceX Tender Offer Said to Value Company at Record $210 BillionSupreme Court Ends OxyContin Settlement, Cracking Sackler ShieldBolivia’s President Arce Swears in New Army Chief Aft Read More...

(Bloomberg) — Police raided a Southern California warehouse filled with an estimated $2 million worth of suspected stolen merchandise they say likely would have ended up on online marketplaces run by Amazon.com Inc. and other retailers.

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The California Highway Patrol’s cargo theft unit obtained a search warrant to inspect the Santa Ana facility — just off Interstate 5 about 30 miles south of Los Angeles — following months of surveillance and communication with Amazon and other retailers, according to a person familiar with the investigation. About a dozen officers wearing tactical gear raided the warehouse and lot. They handcuffed three men as the operation continued.

The Thursday morning raid is the latest effort by police to crack down on a wave of cargo truck thefts that have ticked up sharply this year, inflicting huge losses on the retail, logistics and insurance industries.

Thieves typically steal truckloads of merchandise worth anywhere from a few hundred thousand dollars to millions of dollars depending on what’s inside. There were 925 reported incidents of cargo theft in the first three months of the year, up 46% from the same period in 2023, according to CargoNet, which compiles theft data used by law enforcement and insurance companies to recover assets. The value of merchandise stolen in the first quarter was $73 million, more than triple the losses from a year ago.

Cargo theft is less visible than shoplifting, which is often captured on store surveillance cameras and smartphone videos showing people brazenly leaving stores with carts piled high with merchandise. California, Texas and Illinois are hot spots for cargo theft, according to CargoNet.

The Santa Ana raid was an attempt to take down a so-called fence, where cargo thieves sell the stolen goods in bulk to other criminals, who in turn sell it to consumers online or in stores, according to the person familiar with the investigation. Shutting down a fence can cool cargo theft by eliminating a place for thieves to cash in their cargo, the person said. Amazon warns customers about the possibility of stolen goods appearing on its website and has posted instructions on how to report suspicious activity.

Inside the warehouse, pallets of inventory were stacked floor-to-ceiling. Crates of pet food, nutritional supplements, vacuum cleaners, air fryers and spray-on tan cluttered the building. Police looked for tell-tale signs of cargo theft, including entire pallets of brand new inventory in boxes in good condition. A legitimate retail liquidator would have more of a jumbled mix of products in damaged boxes.

Police estimate they seized about 12 cargo containers of inventory. They stacked pallets of dog food, space heaters, wine chillers and other products on the road outside the warehouse so it could be recovered by its owners. The cargo theft unit raided the same property in 2022 and recovered more than $9 million in stolen goods, the person said. Information about arrests and suspects resulting from Thursday’s raid was not immediately available.

“Organized retail crime, such as cargo theft, is an industrywide problem many retailers face, including Amazon,” a company spokesperson said in a statement. Amazon has a sophisticated detection and prevention operation that lets it quickly spot a range of organized retail crime, and helps partners trace items throughout the supply chain, he said. Amazon has helped identify “bad actors,” referrals that have led to arrests and the dismantling of organized crime networks around the world, the spokesperson said.

Cargo theft is tricky to solve because unless thieves are caught in the act, it’s difficult to prove the merchandise was stolen, said Keith Lewis, vice president of operations at CargoNet. Organized crime rings have become increasingly sophisticated, graduating from the armed truck robberies depicted in Mafia movies.

Today, tech-savvy criminals monitor logistics industry “load boards,” online auctions matching trucking companies with cargo that needs to be hauled. Thieves can use stolen identities to impersonate legitimate trucking companies, pick up loads of merchandise from warehouses and then vanish, Lewis said. It could be days before anyone realizes the inventory was stolen, giving the thieves plenty of time to cover their tracks, he said.

“In five years, we’re going to look back and think of this as the good old days because this problem is only getting worse,” Lewis said. “The thieves are hooked on the money, and, as we develop better ways to fight them, it seems they’re always two or three steps ahead.”

(Updates with estimated value of goods in first paragraph, details from raid in eighth.)

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