Organized retail crime blamed for surge in shoplifting at Tanger Outlets in Riverhead

Riverhead police logged more than 200 reports of shoplifting at the Tanger Outlets mall in the past year, according to data obtained through public records requests. 

The Polo Ralph Lauren Factory Store at Tanger Outlets logged the most 911 calls for shoplifting — 39 in one year — followed by the UGG store, with 24, and H&M, with 16 calls, according to police records from March 18, 2022, to March 18, 2023. In all, 222 such calls from 50 different Tanger stores were made during this period. 

Experts say that sustained and extensive retail theft is not unique to the Riverhead mall, but rather part of a vexing nationwide boom in organized retail crime. Various studies estimate the annual losses to major U.S. retailers from this type of crime range from $80 billion to more than $100 billion.

Last month, Riverhead News-Review sought a year’s worth of records of 911 calls emanating from the Tanger Outlets property to try and quantify the amount of shoplifting being reported there, after Riverhead Police Chief Hegermiller noted at a March civic meeting that Tanger is “probably the biggest” driver of property crime statistics townwide. 

Petit larceny, stolen property valued at less than $1,000, is a misdemeanor in the state of New York. A property theft is deemed grand larceny, a felony, when more than $1,000 worth of goods or merchandise is stolen. 

The records request also followed in the wake of a rare armed carjacking on March 10 of a Banana Republic outlet store employee’s vehicle, a crime that to date remains unsolved. Mr. Hegermiller said armed carjackings are so uncommon in Riverhead that he couldn’t recall the last time one occurred.

Mr. Hegermiller said in an interview this week that while the statistics for shoplifting in the past year at Tanger mark a 10-year high, that designation can be misleading. 

“I don’t want Tanger to sound like the crime capital of Riverhead, because it’s not,” he said. He said that to get an accurate comparison of shoplifting elsewhere in Riverhead, you’d have to compare one store to another. “You have I don’t know how many stores in there currently, all at one address. It’s not just Walmart, it’s dozens of Walmarts in one location.” According to Tanger’s website, there are more than 140 stores currently operating in the complex. 

At Riverhead News Review’s request, the chief reviewed yearly shoplifting statistics at Tanger Outlets over the past decade and found that the records of 911 calls from March 2022 to March 2023 were the highest, compared with the total number of larceny 911 calls from Tanger in 2017 (181), and in 2022 (193). 

Spokespersons for the Polo Ralph Lauren Factory Store, UGG and H & M did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the data. 

In a statement, Tanger Outlets management said that “Tanger continually evaluates its security protocols at each location to ensure they are robust and effective; utilizing the latest technology to constantly improve the programs we have in place. 

“While we cannot share the details of our security enhancements, our management team is working closely with our corporate security, retail partners and the Riverhead Police Department to ensure the well-being of our employees, shoppers and retailers.”

Jacque Brittain, editorial director at Loss Prevention Magazine, which tracks the retail security industry, and other industry veterans said the rise in organized retail crime nationwide can be attributed to multiple intersecting factors, including the growth in online retail platforms to resell stolen goods; reluctance by some retailers to report or prosecute retail thefts for fear of alienating or frightening customers; a lack of precise national statistics to measure and quantify the problem and higher priority crimes that necessarily take precedence over larceny. 

Trade industry and retail crime experts said that the Riverhead mall is particularly vulnerable to organized retail crime and shoplifting for the same reason that it’s a popular shopping destination: easy access to the Long Island Expressway. 

“You don’t have a shoplifting problem at [Riverhead’s Tanger Outlets] — what you have is an organized retail crime problem,” said Mr. Brittain. 

Much of the retail crime at luxury goods destinations like Tanger Outlets and similar malls across America is planned and organized, he said. 

“This is not some mom stealing a baby outfit for her kid at the Gap.”

There are no nationwide uniform crime statistics that measure organized retail crime, or differentiate it from individual shoplifting incidents, according to the National Retail Federation. 

Mr. Brittain, who reviewed the Riverhead police records, acknowledged that he “can’t say with complete conviction that all these [reports] are necessarily organized retail crime.” 

Yet he contended with a hint of sarcasm that his experience covering the industry suggested most retail theft these days is organized. 

“I guess it’s possible [an individual thief] needs to change their sweater every day, so they have to steal 50 of the same sweater, but c’mon.” 

Retail industry trade groups say the problem is growing and getting worse. 

“This is every state, every city,” said Christian Beckner, the NRF’s vice president of retail technology and cybersecurity. “You see this in smaller towns and rural areas too. It looks different in different places — depending on the tactics the criminals use — but it’s everywhere.” 

“We’ve definitely seen that during the pandemic, pretty much unanimously, our retail members have indicated this is an increasing problem.” 

A threat assessment report released by the NRF earlier this year found that 70% of retailers say the threat of organized retail crime has increased in the past five years.

While focused solely on New York City crime, an analysis of NYPD crime statistics released this month by researchers at John Jay College of Criminal Justice found that petit larceny reports grew 53% at major retailers across the five boroughs, from fewer than 35,000 to nearly 55,000 incidents annually.

Mr. Brittain said that the rise of online marketplaces — from Craigslist and Amazon to eBay, Facebook Marketplace and a galaxy of phone apps — is “probably the biggest contributor to the rise in organized retail crime.”

The NRF report notes that “user-friendly online marketplaces significantly reduce barriers to entry for sellers, including ORC fences, who are able to access prospective buyers across the United States and in many overseas markets.”

The NRF study’s researchers analyzed nearly 9,000 listings on two major peer-to-peer ecommerce sites — Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace — and found that about one-quarter of those listings contained “elements associated with organized retail crime.” Researchers said in the report that their findings “are consistent with information provided by law enforcement and loss prevention professionals.” Neither Craigslist nor Facebook parent company Meta immediately responded to requests for comment on the report’s conclusions. 

Industry experts say that major U.S. retailers face a Catch 22: they fear reputational damage if they draw too much attention to crime occurring inside their stores, yet the growth in organized retail crime is collectively costing the industry tens of billions of dollars a year.  

“Above and beyond everything else,” Mr. Brittain said, major retailers fear making “the customer feels unsafe — and they quit shopping there.” 

Mr. Beckner said big brands know they often have little to gain from reporting the crimes to police. 

“We’ve seen examples where retailers were told it’s a lower priority because it’s a property crime,” said Mr. Beckner. “If you have a police department with open murder cases, or open sexual assault cases, for very understandable reasons they prioritize” those crimes. 

He said that many organized retail crime gangs intentionally steal less than $1,000 worth of merchandise, knowing the crime will be categorized as a misdemeanor. 

“The thieves know to go in and steal not more than the [felony] threshold. Even if they are arrested, there’s no ability to prosecute in any way that’s a meaningful deterrent.” 

Mr. Brittain said that in many jurisdictions, “police simply won’t respond to these incidents, and that’s not the police’s fault. They see petit larceny crimes as not that important, and a lot of that comes from the [state] legislatures: It’s more of a headline to say you busted a drug ring.” 

Some retailers, even when confronted with arrested suspects, decline to prosecute. 

“The problem is that there are some stores or businesses or corporations that don’t want to prosecute, and that’s been forever,” Mr. Hegermiller said. “Some do, some don’t.” 

Mr. Beckner said that “a lot” of organized retail crime goes unreported by business owners. “Even when retailers are aware of it, they’re not always anxious to report it, and they know that over time no action will be taken.” 

Still, he believes that brand name retailers are beginning to change longstanding attitudes towards retail theft.

“You have seen more retailers, like Target and Walmart, being more vocal about this recently,” he said. 

New technology could make a difference too.

Earlier this year, the retailer Lowe’s announced plans to use RFID tags and scanners that activate legitimately purchased products at checkout, to render items like stolen power tools useless. 

The Lowe’s products are loaded with radio frequency identification tags with unique serial numbers. When a Lowe’s product is scanned at checkout, the scanner determines whether all the RFID tags match, and if so, activates the product for use. Without the scan, a stolen Lowe’s item, like a power tool, becomes useless. It also uses blockchain technology to create a publicly accessible database of legitimate purchases of a given product, which can be accessed by retailers, manufacturers and law enforcement to authenticate legitimate purchases. The database is anonymized on the blockchain and contains no personal information, according to Lowe’s.