3 On Your Side exposes undercover crime rings

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By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland

CHANDLER, Ariz -- It's not cash or even high-dollar items. Sophisticated crime rings are saturating the Valley, stealing everything from detergent to cosmetics and even liquor.

3 On Your Side's Gary Harper exposes why these thieves are so fearless -- they often strike in the middle of the day. We recently went undercover with the specialists hired to catch criminals in the act.

They're bold, they're brazen and they're ready to brawl. But these crooks aren't running off with anything valuable. They're stealing something simple, bottles of detergent.

Scenes like this one at a Valley Walgreens where women prop a giant trash cash on top of their cart and clear out cosmetics are taking place nationwide.

"They target shampoos, liquor, anything that really has a value on the street," explained Darin Fredrickson, the director of operations for Team Guardian, a company specializing in investigations and security surveillance. But given the nature of his job, we agreed to digitize Fredrickson's face.

3TV is taking you inside the underground world of organized retail crime. It's where criminals walk freely into stores, walk out with thousands of dollars of merchandise and are making a fortune.

"I basically spend 80 percent of my time now on the street, going after individuals that are targeting our stores," Fredrickson said.

More and more stores across the Valley are hiring companies like Team Guardian to capture these lucrative crime sprees on tape.

After all, these people aren't amateur thieves. They're sophisticated shoplifters known as "boosters."

"What they're stealing is resold," Fredrickson explained. "They're not stealing it for their own use and it's big business."

It's a business that's generating billions and thanks to Internet sites like eBay and Craigslist, it's exploding.

"Right now I know there are at least a dozen active groups working," Fredrickson said.

Dozens of rings and who knows how many individuals in the Valley are currently boosting.

"They are basically making a living off as much as they can take from every retailer 24/7," Joe Kopelic with Fry's grocery stores said.

Kopelic estimates the losses are in the billions a year nationwide.

"Baby formula  is always a huge item. Liquor, obviously, is a great resale item to many different outlets, and Tide, razors -- those are the big ones," he said.

Probably one of the biggest items targeted is baby formula.

"I would estimate with all the major retailers, probably between $4 million and $5 million in loss," Kopelic said. That's just in the Valley.

Surveillance video shows the level of organization required to pull off a boosting operation.

"So there might be five or six people in that store. T they are walking out of that store with thousands of dollars worth of product," Chandler Police Department spokesman Joe Favazzo explained.

Favazzo says those thieves will travel from city to city, hitting store after store. No store is off limits.

Fredrickson says boosters hit places like Fry's, Safeway, Walgreens, Wal-Mart, Target, CVS, Gap, Ross, even Victoria's Secret.

"It is very costly to consumers; it is very costly to governments in loss of revenue from sales tax collections," Favazzo said.

To combat boosting, stores are fighting back. Single-item dispensers are becoming more common. Devices to set off alarms and even stickers that to alert would-be-buyers about where these products come from.

But Kopelic says catching one thief at a time is not the solution.

"They are taking it to fencing operations who are taking it from many different sources," he said.

You heard right. The boosters sell the stolen merchandise to a person known as a "fence." The fence is the one who then turns around to sell it to consumers

It's Fredrickson's job to conduct surveillance on both.

"A retail thief, when they hit a store, they think they are getting in, they think they are getting out, they think they are getting out clean," he said. "Many times we are actually  following them, and watching  them go in there and steal the merchandise, and then we are watching to see where they sell it."

Fredrickson not only obtains undercover surveillance, he also becomes an eyewitness -- key evidence for stores and police trying to build cases.

"Well when you go out and actually follow them, you can say, 'Yeah, I personally identified and observed that subject,'" he said. "Now you can go through your video and say, 'That is that person. That is that person. That is that person.'"

So,  the next time they see a suspect go in a store, they can stop a crime that's hitting all of us.

"It is costing the consumers I can't even imagine how much money," Favazzo said. "It's costing all of us as taxpayers. When you go into the store to buy legitimate products from a legitimate business, we're going to lay more for it [because of boosters and fencing operations]," Favazzo said. "All of that tax revenue that is being lost, it really hurts. It hurts the economy and it hurts us individually."