Ohio law enforcement is standing up against increasingly popular and lucrative organized retail theft in the state, but big tech has been difficult to work with.
“It’s big money,” Perrysburg Township Police Department Detective Sgt. Todd Curtis told NBC News. “We’re not going to put up with it. We’re not going to tolerate it.”
Curtis was posing as a landscaper when he arrested a thief selling stolen power tools online.
The thief, Rick Nye, resold the stolen tools on Facebook Marketplace.
He was eventually charged with helping lead an organized crime ring across Michigan and Ohio, and will serve a five-year sentence in state prison.
Police say organized retail theft, where criminals shoplift expensive items from retailers and resell them on the internet, is a booming business.
Curtis, along with 23 investigators, has been busting shoplifting rings before the recent smash-and-grab trends in states like California and Illinois caught the media’s attention.
Both law enforcement and big tech have acknowledged the role the internet plays in providing privacy and anonymity to illegal online sellers. Sites like Craigslist, EBay, and Facebook have all been complicit in allowing the sale of illegal goods.
Meta, Facebook’s parent company, responded to the crimes in a statement: “Organized retail crime is an industry-wide challenge and preventing it requires ongoing collaboration between retailers, law enforcement and online marketplaces.”
However, law enforcement has complained that Facebook and other sites are not very cooperative with investigations, and either take too long to respond to information requests or believe that such overregulation will hurt their community of small businesses.
Sucharita Kodali, a principal analyst at Forrester, explained that federal law currently protects internet companies from liability for things people post in their sites. Kodali was also concerned about the impact of Facebook Marketplace on the sale of stolen goods.
“The fact that they’re so prevalent, the fact that there is absolutely no regulation around them, the fact that the marketplaces themselves are explicitly exonerated from illicit activity, which is a huge, huge flaw,” he said.
Shoplifting groups have targeted Perrysburg Township due to its geographical location. Police and retailers say it’s very easy to steal and drive away with stolen goods due to the big box stores’ proximity to the highway.
Seen from surveillance footage, shoplifters generally walk calmly in and out of the store with stolen items. They are rewarded for their efforts with cash, heroin, or crack. Usually the lower-level thieves tend to be drug addicts.
David Skrepenski, who is serving four years for theft, used to recruit shoplifters for Nye. Skrepenski said he could make $2,500 a day stealing power tools and selling them off to ring leaders. He called the work “an easy fast dollar.”
Detectives say that while they can physically track resold goods and their sellers in stores, they have a harder time completing this process if the goods are sold online.
A key investigative strategy involves searching a suspects’ smartphone searches.
Perrysburg Township even sent Officer Dustin Glass the Secret Service for computer forensics training, where he learned how to use a data access software developed by Israeli digital intelligence company Cellebrite.
While the software can allow a user to pull suspect’s text messages and pictures off their phone, it cannot do so with information from social media apps.
Instead, detectives must wait months for Meta to cooperate with their search requests, during which time a search warrant usually expires.
“When we call Facebook for help, we usually have to go through links, emails, things like that. We never get to speak to someone,” Curtis said. “I don’t know what the reluctance is. I don’t know if it’s manpower. I don’t know if it’s something that they think is not a big deal.”
Legislators are also stepping up to help the situation. With enough of a spotlight on this issue, things may start looking up.
Haraz Ghanbari, a local legislator, introduced a bill that requires Facebook, Amazon and other social media sites to verify sellers’ identities. The bill passed the house in December.