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June 1, 2022Washington, DC, United StatesFinancial Crimes

HSI, ACAMS take aim at organized retail crime

New investigative guide outlines red flags associated with schemes generating nearly $70 billion annually

WASHINGTON – Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and the Association of Certified Anti-Money Laundering Specialists (ACAMS) have formed a partnership and published a report to help combat organized retail crime, the large-scale theft of retail merchandise with the intent to resell items for financial gain, which has become an increased threat to public safety and economy.

The report – Detecting and Reporting the Illicit Financial Flows Tied to Organized Theft Groups and Organized Retail Crime – highlights red flags associated with organized theft groups, including structured deposits and withdrawals, large purchases of stored-value cards, high-dollar wire transfers tied to wholesale companies involved with health and beauty supplies, and large purchases of lighter fluid or heat guns, among others.

“Organized retail crime is leading to more brazen, more violent attacks in retail stores throughout the country and many of the criminal rings orchestrating these thefts are also involved in other serious criminal activity,” said HSI’s acting executive associate director Steve Francis. “Tackling this growing threat is important to the safety of store employees, customers, and communities across the country.”

The report also serves as a guide for law enforcement investigators and anti-financial crime (AFC) professionals, outlining how organized theft groups steal and resell retail goods through online marketplaces and front companies and launder an estimated $69 billion in illicit profits through the U.S. financial system and trade-based money laundering (TBML) schemes each year.

“Large-scale retail theft and the money laundering that enables it are exactly the sort of illicit activities that law enforcement, financial institutions, and other stakeholders can more effectively fight together through public-private partnerships,” said ACAMS chief executive officer Scott Liles. “This guide is not just a roadmap for criminal investigators and AFC professionals seeking to better fight organized retail crime – it is also a rallying call for greater collaboration on dismantling these dangerous criminal syndicates.”

According to the report, law enforcement agencies, retailers, online marketplaces, and financial institutions need to collaborate in public-private partnerships to facilitate information sharing and coordinate actions that help investigators better combat organized retail crime. Banks and other institutions can also consider “reasonably” enhancing anti-money laundering (AML) and counterterrorist financing (CFT) compliance programs to detect and report activity linked to organized retail crime.

“Organized retail theft is a low-risk, high-reward crime that generates nearly $70 billion in the United States alone, and much of that sum is routed into financial institutions under the guise of legitimate sales made through online marketplaces,” said co-author of the report Lauren Kohr, ACAMS Senior Director of AML in the Americas. “For this reason, it is critical that banks and other financial institutions are not only aware of the scale of the problem but also actively work to identify and report related suspicious activity.”

In contrast to shoplifters, organized theft groups engage in large-scale thefts which rely on teams of “boosters” who steal goods from major retail stores, “cleaners” who disguise the origins of stolen merchandise, “fencers” who resell products through brick-and-mortar fronts and major e-commerce websites, and professional money launderers who funnel illicit profits to criminals orchestrating schemes. In many instances, organized theft groups resort to violence or violent threats against employees of retail companies.

While organized retail crime is not specifically highlighted in U.S. financial regulations, organized theft groups are often involved in other illicit activity cited in the U.S. Treasury Department’s National AML/CFT Priorities list, including cybercrime, fraud, drug trafficking, terrorism financing, weapons trafficking, and transnational organized crime. Recent investigations have also identified organized retail crime schemes exploiting undocumented migrants forced to steal goods to pay back “coyotes” who smuggle them across international borders.

Members of the public can report suspicious activity, including organized retail crime, by calling the toll-free tip line at 866-347-2423.

The full report is available online.

About ACAMS®

ACAMS is the largest international membership organization dedicated to providing opportunities for anti-financial crime (AFC) education, best practices, and peer-to-peer networking to AFC professionals globally. With more than 90,000 members across 180 jurisdictions, ACAMS is committed to the mission of ending financial crime through the provision of anti-money laundering/counterterrorism-financing and sanctions, knowledge-sharing, leadership, risk-mitigation services, ESG initiatives, and platforms for public-private dialogue. The association’s CAMS certification is the gold-standard qualification for AFC professionals, while the CGSS certification is its premier specialist qualification for sanctions professionals. ACAMS’ 60 Chapters globally further amplify the association’s mission through training and networking initiatives. Visit ACAMS.org to learn more.

About Homeland Security Investigations

HSI is a directorate of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the principal investigative arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), responsible for investigating transnational crime and threats, specifically those criminal organizations that exploit the global infrastructure through which international trade, travel, and finance move. HSI’s workforce of over 10,400 employees consists of more than 7,100 special agents assigned to 220 cities throughout the United States, and 80 overseas locations in 53 countries. HSI’s international presence represents DHS’s largest investigative law enforcement presence abroad and one of the largest international footprints in U.S. law enforcement. Visit Homeland Security Investigations for more information.

The HSI Countering Transnational Organized Crime, Financial and Fraud Division leads programmatic oversight of HSI’s strategic planning, national policy implementation, and the development and execution of operational initiatives for various programmatic areas targeting transnational criminal organizations involved in money laundering, financial fraud, bulk cash smuggling, document fraud, benefit fraud, labor exploitation, and related crimes enforced by HSI, as well as investigative resources related to asset forfeiture, seized property, and equitable sharing.

Updated: 06/01/2022