Organized theft rings have found a new way to get quick cash for stolen merchandise by returning those items to retail stores for easily transferable gift cards, experts said.

Local law enforcement officials said they have seen signs of such activity in some parts of southwest Ohio.

Nearly 78 percent of U.S. retailers report they have been victims of store merchandise credit scams, according to the National Retail Federation’s 2013 Organized Retail Crime survey.

Experienced thieves, known as “boosters,” steal merchandise and return it without a receipt for the sole purpose of receiving store credit via a gift card. They then sell those gift cards for cash on the secondary market, such as discount gift card websites, pawn shops, check-cashing stores and automated kiosks.

“The new trend is disturbing in that these thieves are now making better return on their time stealing merchandise,” said Richard Mellor, the retail federation’s vice president of loss prevention. Boosters can get as much as 90 percent of full retail value, plus sales tax, via gift card fraud, as opposed to pennies on the dollar by selling the items to a fence — a person who acts as a conduit of stolen goods, he said.

Organized criminal enterprises have boosters getting the gift cards through merchandise credit fraud and are now selling those cards in bulk, Mellor said.

Cash from gift card fraud can be used to fuel drug habits and fund terrorism, said Gordon Gough, executive vice president of the Ohio Council of Retail Merchants.

“Before it was kind of a casual theft where somebody would steal something, turn it in and then maybe buy something else in the store or sell it on the street,” Gough said. “But now this has become a market online where people can sell these cards,” he said.

Industry experts and law enforcement officials estimate that organized retail crime costs retailers $30 billion annually. A dollar loss figure related to gift card fraud is not yet available, Mellor said.

Lost revenue from such crimes can result in less inventory and fewer employees for retailers, and higher prices for consumers, according to federation officials.

Retailers nationwide began reporting the trend over the last 12 to 18 months after business statistics indicated an increase in gift cards issued for returns without a receipt, as well as familiar faces and names associated with those returns.

“They started pointing to we’ve got a bigger fraud problem that we realized,” Mellor said.

Beavercreek police Capt. Jeff Fiorita said he has seen a recent pattern of gift card fraud incidents in his jurisdiction, which includes both The Greene Town Center and the Mall at Fairfield Commons.

Fiorita said the thieves will take something off a local store shelf, return it for in-store credit, and then go to a different store location and use the gift card to buy something of similar value. They will then return that item with a receipt to receive the full value in cash.

“I don’t know if it is anything that is related to a large scheme or a large-scale theft ring,” Fiorita said. “Most of these are typically independent folks that we catch.”

Miami Twp. police Sgt. Jay Phares said gift card fraud is nothing new in the area that includes the Dayton Mall, but he hasn’t seen any recent spikes in activity.

Cincinnati Premium Outlets has had issues with roaming bands of shoplifters, “but we have not had that problem so far that I know of,” said Monroe police Lt. Frank Robinson.

Management officials at several area shopping malls declined comment because they lacked information about their tenants’ retail transactions. Loss prevention managers at several large retail stores also declined comment.

Mellor said the trend is “troubling” for retailers because it allows thieves to bypass traditional store security measures such as locked cases and electronic tags for expensive, frequently targeted items like watches, jewelry, designer handbags and electronics.

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