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Colorado retail theft rising: "It's just a free-for-all," says witness

Colorado retail theft rising: "It's just a free-for-all," says witness
Colorado retail theft rising: "It's just a free-for-all," says witness 04:38

A Denver woman says she was just engaging in some "retail therapy" as she shopped at a Ross Dress for Less store on South Colorado Boulevard just before closing time earlier this month. But as she was checking out, she couldn't believe what happened.

"It happened really fast. It was really loud and scary," said the shopper, who asked that her name be withheld as she feared retaliation.

Three people entered the store, grabbed suitcases and bags from the store and began stuffing them with whatever they could get their hands on. The female shopper said the chaos went on for an estimated five to seven minutes and she videotaped some of it with her cellphone. She shared the video with CBS News Colorado.

"It's just a free-for-all," said the shopper. "It was really frightening."

Her videotape shows store employees and security allowing the thieves to leave with bags stuffed full of stolen goods. Nobody tried to stop them.

"It's just mind-boggling. They have free rein," said the shopper.

Two emailed messages from CBS News Colorado to Ross Dress For Less corporate headquarters received no response.

For store manager Ashley Finley, it was just a normal weeknight.

"It happens a lot," said Finley. "I would say that kind of incident happens four times a day."

When she watched the videotape of the incident, she said she recognized two of the thieves and said one had done the same thing the night before, but she said there's little store employees can do.

"It's company policy; we're not allowed to touch them, follow them or we are putting our job in jeopardy. We don't even intimidate them at this point -- they just come in here, get what they want, then they leave. We can't touch them, can't grab anything from their hands, can't put ourselves in jeopardy," said Finley, who called the constant theft "frustrating."

"It happens a lot. It's sad," she said.

Chris Howes, president of the Colorado Retail Council, concurred that organized retail crime is happening more and more often and is now estimated to cost Colorado retailers $1 billion a year in losses.

"To have this breakdown, culturally, where people can just storm into a store and take what they want is a breakdown in civil society we need to focus on," said Howes.

David Johnston with the National Retail Federation said organized retail crime rose 26.5% in 2022 and now costs retailers nationwide $95 billion a year.

"These acts are occurring more openly and thieves have become more brazen and aggressive in stealing merchandise," said Johnston.

Howes said much of the stolen merchandise is ending up for sale on online marketplaces.

That's one place where retailers are finding a toehold to fight back, as state and federal laws have been passed in recent years that give law enforcement more ability to find, root out and penalize online sellers trafficking in stolen goods.

"It's got to stop. We have to find a way to find a solution," said Howes. He said while the problem has "grown exponentially," it's fueled by drug users who can quickly turn merchandise into cash.

"We know the folks doing these crimes are comfortable using weapons and that wasn't the case in the past," said Howes.

He said a "hands-off" policy is standard in many retail stores. "There's just no scenario where team members are going to be asked to act as security or law enforcement. That's just not going to happen," said Howes.

But the woman who videotaped the recent Ross incident is deeply concerned that as these chaotic theft episodes become more commonplace, shoppers and store employees are being placed at greater risk.

"More than anything I was fearful for the workers," said the 56-year-old shopper. "A well-meaning armed shopper doesn't know what's happening. Things could escalate, someone could get hurt," she said.

"To have violence like this," said Howes, "affects the psyche of employees and customers."

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