When you think about organized crime, odds are you thinking more about the Mafia than shoplifters.
But shoplifting has become big business -- a $10 billion industry run by organized theft rings costing local businesses in the hundreds of millions.
It was early evening last April when three men went into a Phar-mor store in Norfolk. Within minutes, they were cleaning out the shelf of name brand over-the-counter drugs.
They got away that day. But a month later, one of them returned with a partner. This time, Assistant Manager Todd Betcher confronted the suspects and struggled with them before they ran off. "I work hard for a living and I'm here earning money trying to get this company to go and these people aren't helping me out any," Betcher said.
Retailers are fighting the war against professional shoplifters, whose thefts cause prices to go up and take away millions in sales tax revenue.
Margaret Ballard with the Retail Alliance estimates local retailers lost $200-$250 million to shoplifting for 2001.
So, where do those stolen goods end up? Police say they're often found on internet auction sites or at flea markets. At a local flea market, some vendors said they get their items at closeouts -- stores that are closing, or mom and pop shops.
That may be so, but retailers wonder how someone can sell name brand drugs often for less than a store's bargain basement price.
"Then you have to ask yourself, is this bargain really a bargain or is it too good to be true?" said Phar-mor Vice President Joe McCabe.
Today's professional shoplifter is usually part of a bigger operation known as an o.r.t.--organized retail theft. The rings involve bosses, middlemen known as fences and boosters -- the shoplifters, many who are drug addicts recruited to do the dirty work.
Professional shoplifters don't seem concerned about being seen on camera. Their take can net them a six-figure income each year. That has resulted in some rather bold tactics.
On one store's surveillance video, the suspects loaded up a rubber trash can with stolen goods and then barrelled their way out of the store, taking out bicycles and the clerks who were trying to stop them.
Shoplifting has proven to be fruitful for the thief, with big rewards if successful and little penalty if caught.
Even in a local case dubbed Operation Cold Storage, where feds and local police busted a theft ring in Ocean View, most of the middlemen got probation. They were first time offenders. "The court apparently did not take into consideration in its sentence the quantity that they were fencing," said former Norfolk prosecutor Clark Daughtry.
Virginia has a new law that might make it harder for unscrupulous flea market vendors to sell stolen goods.
Vendors can no longer sell baby formula or over-the-counter drugs without approval from the manufacturer or distributor.
The law is only 11 days old, but athis past weekend, one vendor was still selling over-the-counter drugs. She admitted she hadn't gotten approval from the drug company or its distributor and said she was sorry.
Retailers, meantime, want to see stiffer penalties for professional shoplifters. They want judges to come down harder on big players who have taken a petty crime and turned it into big business.