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How Organized Retail Crime Fuels Human Trafficking

August 7, 2018

(This article originally appeared in Loss Prevention Magazine Online)

What comes to mind when you think of organized retail crime (ORC)? High shrink items with high resell values, such as razors, baby formula, jeans and such? Or fencing operations, whether online or at the corner store? Recently I wrote an article about the broader scope of ORC, and the narrowing gap between ORC and cybercrime. In this article I will dive deeper into another aspect of ORC not often thought of, which is human trafficking.

Last January, the New York Daily News ran a story about how a runaway’s arrest for shoplifting resulted in an arrest of a sex trafficker. A 14-year-old girl was caught at Macys for shoplifting. While being interviewed, she revealed that she was forced into prostitution. The New York City Police Department has detectives assigned to a human trafficking unit, and they quickly apprehended the suspect.

This reminded me of something I witnessed in person. A group of females ranging in age from 14 to 48 were arrested as a part of a large credit card fraud ring operation in Queens, New York. It turned out that they were buying goods with stolen credit cards by day, and were forced into prostitution at night. I personally interviewed one who told me, “I thought America was going to be safer than anywhere else in the world. I was wrong.” She went on to explain how she started working as a cook, then was recruited to shoplifting, and before she knew it, she was a prostitute. At first, I wasn’t sure what to believe, but then she asked me if the police could help her get out. The NYPD assigned a specialized detective to her case.

Back in February, NPR published a good interview with a criminal investigator from Minnesota, and the topic was the connection between the Super Bowl and sex trafficking. The conversation revolved around how at-risk youths caught shoplifting are befriended by traffickers, and then manipulated into prostitution. The journalist asked the investigator, Marc Chadderon, whether there are signs that can help cops (and, in my view, asset protection professionals) to spot a victim of human trafficking during interviews. Chadderon offered several potential giveaways: presence of multiple phones on the person (“burner” phones for short term use and one personal one); presence of an older person near a younger female, who possibly don’t even know that person’s real name; large amounts of cash or prepaid credit cards; and motel keys. This list is certainly not exhaustive, but it’s a very good start.

I know that ORC investigators already have their hands full, so it’s not my intention to add yet another thing to worry about during interviews. But according to Laura Lederer, a leading State Department official on human trafficking, this is “the third-largest global criminal enterprise, exceeded only by drug and arms trafficking.” I also know that it is often missed during the interviews of ORC suspects. More and more police departments are including into their routine specific interview questions that can reveal human trafficking, and I think it makes sense that ORC investigators consider doing the same. Most importantly, if you suspect that someone could be a victim, report it.

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