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Organized Retail Crime (The SEARCH Initiative)

May 29, 2012

Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) launched the SEARCH Initiative (Seizing Earnings and Assets from Retail Crime Heists) to address the increasing threat and occurrence of transnational organized retail crime and investigate the organized retail crime rings and conspirators responsible. Among other investigative methods, HSI investigates these crimes through an anti-money laundering strategy. As part of this strategy, HSI works with the retail and financial sectors to actively pursue cases related to organized retail crime.

HSI has an extensive history of productive partnerships with private industry. Through the SEARCH Initiative, HSI expanded its partnerships with the retail sector. HSI’s efforts related to the SEARCH Initiative are in accordance with guiding principles within the DHS Strategic Plan of building trust through collaboration and partnerships.

Productive partnerships with the National Retail Federation, the Retail Industry Leaders Association and many of the member companies that work with and support these associations were formed. HSI’s leadership and agents are well aware of the importance of these partnerships and of organized retail crime’s impact on more than just the retail industry and retail economy.

Through the SEARCH Initiative, HSI is actively seeking and pursuing investigative leads related to organized retail crime that have a nexus to transnational criminal organizations. We focus our investigations on the proceeds that are derived from the criminal activity and the movement of these illicit funds into or out of the United States, stolen property unlawfully exported out of the country and/or those involved in the organized, illicit activity that are from a foreign country and residing in the United States illegally.

Organized retail crime can occur by means of theft through shoplifting or unauthorized purchases on credit/debit, and can be done physically or electronically with re-shippers located in the United States.

The SEARCH Initiative has resulted in the execution of multi-faceted, multi-disciplined investigations that have subjected organized retail crime rings to simultaneous enforcement actions against multiple operational cells within their organizational structure. Through these comprehensive investigations, including determination of the methods to move and store illicit proceeds, HSI strives for disruption of the criminal activity, prosecution of those involved, and seizure and recovery of goods and proceeds.

These investigations effectively link federal, state and local law enforcement, prosecutors, and the financial and retail communities to provide a multi-faceted approach to prosecuting and deterring individuals/organizations involved in organized retail crime. The retail industry supports HSI’s efforts in making SEARCH a national initiative because all too often, this type of organized criminal activity has been looked upon as a local problem. Lack of visibility outside a jurisdiction can contribute to that appearance, but federal investigations have proven the level and sophistication of criminal enterprises involved in organized can be much greater.

The success of the SEARCH Initiative is integral to HSI’s mission of protecting the homeland by targeting the ways in which criminal organizations generate, move and store illicit proceeds. In concert with HSI’s Cornerstone Outreach Initiative, the SEARCH Initiative works to identify and disseminate “red flag indicators” of suspicious financial transactions to assist financial institutions in developing the typologies necessary to proactively target and report on organized retail crime rings attempting to launder illicit proceeds from the sale of stolen goods. Based on successful HSI investigations into organized retail crime, some indicators of suspicious banking activity have been identified.

Red Flag Indicators identified through HSI investigations:

  • Business checks written to individuals instead of legitimate suppliers and cashed at the banks where the checks originated, instead of being deposited into another business bank account.
  • Business checks written to cash on a regular basis in amounts that far exceed a business’ petty cash requirement.
  • Multiple checks written on the same day in amounts less than $10,000, possibly to avoid reporting requirements, despite the fact that checks would not normally generate Currency Transaction Reports.
  • Multiple money orders in increments of $500 or less deposited into bank accounts where the remitter of the money order is an authorized signer on the bank accounts into which the checks are being deposited.
  • Subjects of questionable financial transactions all maintain the same address.
  • Occupations listed for the subjects of questionable financial activities are not commensurate to the volume and type of the financial activities.
  • Checks drawn from the questionable financial activities are negotiated in foreign countries.
  • Cash deposits related to the questionable financial activities involved currency in $100 denominations.
  • Fraudulent use of debit/gift cards, which are also referred to as prepaid cards.
  • Cashier’s checks obtained from U.S. banks and tendered at foreign banks.
  • Large bank wire transfers in exchange for product shipped via interstate commerce.
  • Numerous credits to debit or credit accounts from merchants which are not commensurate with purchases made.
Last Reviewed/Updated: 06/03/2014