Monday, October 29, 2007

Retailers asked Congress last week to require Internet auction sites such as EBay to share information on high-volume sellers and make organized retail crime a felony, in an attempt to stop the growing problem.

Retailers say EBay and online auction sites have made large-scale theft more attractive, because once criminals have stolen mass quantities of a product, they’re able to sell it quickly and easily online.

“These gangs of thieves steal up to $30 billion in merchandise a year,” said Tim Hammonds, president and chief executive officer of the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), an Arlington trade group.

Even more dangerous for consumers is that the thieves might not care for temperature or safety-sensitive products in the way that a legit retailer does.

“They endanger public health by adulterating products such as infant formula and cold medicines and selling them to unsuspecting consumers often through illegitimate retail outlets,” Mr. Hammonds said.

The pleas came at a hearing last week of the House Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on crime, terrorism and homeland security.

About 60 percent of retailers reported the problem has worsened this year, according to FMI. Six year ago, 32 retailers formed the Coalition Against Organized Retail Crime to try to address the problem.

Retailers described scenarios in which the thieves enter stores and steal mass quantities of high-priced items — such as Prilosec, Tylenol, Crest White Strips, razor blades or baby formula in grocery stores or luxury clothes, gift cards and electronics in other stores — and sell them in flea markets or online.

“The Internet has created a worldwide market for stolen goods in which the sellers are anonymous and there is an enormous universe of buyers who are generally unaware of the nature of the goods sold,” said Brad Brekke, Target’s vice president of assets protection.

David Hill, a detective with the Montgomery County Police Department’s retail crimes unit, testified that these criminals are being treated as common shoplifters and “getting off with little more than a slap on the wrist.” He asked for federal regulations on organized retail theft.

An EBay Inc. official said the company has more than 2,000 employees working on the problem of online fraud.

“When any retailer has concrete evidence to the effect that stolen property is on our site, we will work with them and law enforcement to address the problem, including sharing information about a targeted seller with the appropriate enforcement agency,” said Robert Chesnut, senior vice president of rules, trust and safety at EBay.

In other news

• Top area chefs will stage the annual Capital Food Fight on Nov. 6 to combat hunger. Chefs Bryan Voltaggio (Charlie Palmer Steak), RJ Cooper (Vidalia), Barton Seaver (Hook) and Cathal Armstrong (Restaurant Eve) will vie with last year’s winners, Roberto Donna (Galileo) and Anthony Chittum (Vermilion) for the championship. Guests will taste dishes from 45 restaurants around town.

Previous Capital Food Fights have raised $600,000 to fight hunger through the D.C. Central Kitchen. Individual tickets are $175 and are available at

Send news to Jen Haberkorn at 202/636-4836 or

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