CHICAGO - While organized retail theft has been going on for decades, it has now grown into a $45 billion a year illegal industry.
Former FBI agent Ross Rice says that is because criminals know they’ll likely get away with it.
"We’ve seen stories recently where the same business has been targeted two or three times in the same month. Well, why are they going back to the same place? Because they got away the first time," said Rice. "You don’t have armed security, and most of the stores have told their employees don’t get involved, don’t intervene, we don’t want anyone hurt."
Rob Karr of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association says organized retail theft has grown 60 percent over the last five years — particularly in areas where criminals perceive law enforcement to be lax.
"What’s difficult for retail, is retail isn’t like a factory or a government office building. We can’t have everything behind lock and key," said Karr. "All of us are victims of retail theft, particularly organized retail crime. Every item that is stolen from a store, there is no sales tax collected on that item."
So, where is all that stolen stuff going?
While some winds up in pawn shops, flea markets or peddled out of cars, experts say the biggest marketplace is as close as your computer or cellphone.
"It's not on the dark web. It’s on the bright web. It’s on Facebook marketplace, Craigslist, eBay — locations that people go to all the time," said Rice.
Although online platforms have rules prohibiting the sale of stolen merchandise, it's hard to verify where items posted on the web actually come from.
"How do they know? Look at the number of postings that are on eBay or on Craigslist. It’s physically impossible to go through and verify each one," said Rice.
Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin recently held a judiciary committee hearing on organized retail theft.
"When you buy products from third-party sellers in online marketplaces, you’re really rolling the dice," said Sen. Durbin. "We need urgent action from those in congress."
Congress is working on a tool to do just that — the INFORM Consumers Act.
The INFORM Consumers Act is a bipartisan bill that would require online retailers to disclose exactly who is selling what you’re buying.
"If somebody’s gonna sell a large volume of goods online in a marketplace, they should tell the marketplace who they are. Doesn’t that sound pretty basic? The seller should be verified," said Sen. Durbin.
"It takes important first steps in providing accountability in policing those websites," said Karr.
Last September, Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul established an organized retail crime task force, which in December made its first major bust, recovering tens of thousands of stolen items packed into eight storage units waiting to be fenced.
But what about you — the consumer? How do you know something you’re buying online was stolen?
Experts say there are some telltale signs.
"Something that’s advertised as brand new in the box is always a clue. Why would you sell it online for less than you paid for it? If you don’t want the item you can take it back to the store and get a full refund," said Rice.
But as long as sellers can hide their identities, and demand for cheap merchandise remains high, experts say criminal retail theft rings will continue to thrive.
Other red flags experts say you should look for include multiple items being sold still in their original packaging with price tags on, and if the seller takes requests for "special" orders.
While the language for the INFORM Consumer Act has been approved in both the U.S. House and Senate, the Illinois Retail Merchants Association says it has been working with other lawmakers to develop more new measures to fight organized retail theft, and that they will have some new proposals to announce in the near future.