Approximately $10 billion worth of merchandise is stolen from stores every year, and retailers are just beginning to realize that a huge chunk of it is being taken by gangs of highly skilled, well-organized professionals from South America.
Most of them started as pickpockets in places like Colombia, Chile, Equador and Peru, before being brought to the United States to ply their trade for what the FBI calls South American theft groups. The best of the lot move on to cargo thefts and jewelry heists.
But their bread and butter is "boosting." And you are most likely to cross paths with them, as 60 Minutes did, at a suburban shopping mall, where every day, they steal crate loads of clothes, right off the racks. Correspondent Steve Kroft reports.
Surveillance photos, taken by undercover police officers, shows a team of seven South American thieves clean out an Old Navy store.
When they moved in to make the arrest, police found enough merchandise to fill a room, all taken in less than an hour, without anyone inside the store noticing a thing.
There may be as many as a 1,000 of these teams operating every day, and about the only the place they are ever captured is on the videotape in store security cameras.
Craig Matsamato was the head of loss prevention at T.J. Maxx and Reebok. He is now a security consultant for major retailers, and he has become well acquainted with the South American groups.
"You're finding them now out throughout California, Maryland, Chicago, Miami, New York," says Matsamato. "When you talk about shoplifting, not a lot of people think about organized crime. Most people think when you say shoplifting, it's the opportunistic shoplifter."
Like Winona Ryder?
"Winona Ryder, there you go. That's kind of how people look at shoplifting. Nobody really talks about the fact that, 'Geez it's really organized, it's big business, and it's high loss to retailers,'" adds Matsamato, who says the South Americans usually work in small groups, relying on distraction, advanced planning and precision teamwork.
One or two people occupy the sales staff, while others go to work. And it doesn't take them long.
"They're professional at what they do," says Sgt. Scott Guginski, who heads the New York Police Department's Organized Theft Task Force, which focuses almost entirely on South American organized crime. He says they use specially made booster bags, lined with foil or duct tape, to smuggle the stolen merchandise out of the store.
"The foil's on top of a piece of cardboard. And it's sewn into the linings," says Guginski, who adds that the purpose of the foil on the inside is to throw off security at the doors. "If you're walking out with an item with a security tag, it won't set it off."
South American shoplifting teams feed a black market for stolen goods that flourishes in most big cities. One discount outlet in Queens, N.Y., contained more than a million dollars worth of brand new, brand-name clothes, selling for half off retail price.
"It's known to certain communities where, if you live in that community, you know where you can go, and you can get a discount, a 50 percent discount, on clothing," says Guginski.
Some of the loot turns up in other countries, and even online, where stolen merchandise occasionally finds it way onto eBay. For the South American gangs, Guginski says, boosting is a highly lucrative, low-risk criminal enterprise.
When he arrests somebody, are they cooperative?
"For the most part, no. They're trained and they know exactly what to say and what not to say," says Guginski. "For the most part, you won't even get a name out of them."
But he does get a picture. He has books containing mug shots, and surveillance photos of 2,500 South American gang members known to be operating in the United States. All of them have been arrested at least once; almost all of them are in the country illegally; and all have a number of different identities and aliases provided by the organization.
"What they do is, they come here and they'll either do jewelry theft or boosting and they'll work for six months and they'll go back to their country, where they take that money back to a South American country."
Sgt. Tony Ojeda of Miami's Dade County Police Department has been following these groups for 14 years. He's arrested and interrogated hundreds of members, and says they have one thing in common: almost all of them start off as pickpockets.
"That is their foundation. It doesn't matter what their specialty is, that is their foundation. They all learn the art of pick pocketing," says Ojeda. "Obviously, No. 1, they wanna get money. But the second thing, even more important, is they're looking for travel documents to smuggle more of the criminal element into the United States.
South American thieves have been sneaking into of the United States using phony passports and visas since the '70s, when informants used to talk about a now-defunct college for thieves called "the school of the seven bells."
What it involved was that they would dress up a mannequin and they would attach sleigh bells to all the pockets. For the student to be able to graduate, he actually had to lift a wallet from all seven pockets – without ringing the bells.
Those most likely to succeed tend to gravitate toward jewelry theft, which is the most lucrative business the South Americans are in involved in.
Surveillance photos show a jewelry team casing out a store in Boston, looking for a jewelry supplier, or courier, making a sales call. They've been known to follow a victim for weeks or even months, learning their routines, waiting for the right time to strike.
"This is not something that happens occasionally. It's pervasive. It's an epidemic," says Rich Loebl, vice president of Le Vian jewelers in New York. He says the thieves are so brazen, they'll even target jewelers in the city's heavily fortified diamond district.
"They say there are more police officers on the street here than anywhere else in New York. And the reason is, it's not safe to be out here without a police officer," says Loebl.
Turns out he was right. But Loebl learned all of this the hard way. In 1999, he was followed leaving a department store in Cincinnati. After waving off his police escort, he stopped at a restaurant. When he came out, a van with five people screeched up beside his car.
"They got over $5 million," says Loebl. "That's a frightening haul."
Last year, the South American gangs were responsible for 195 jewelry robberies, stealing an estimated $75 million in merchandise.
One surveillance video, taken from a police helicopter, shows one of their favorite tactics. A gang member gets out of his car and sneaks up on a jewelry salesman's vehicle to puncture his tire.
"What we're seeing is they'll pop your tire, you'll have a slow leak, you'll be driving, you'll pull over because you have a flat tire," says Guginski.
Then, the thieves strike with paramilitary precision. In fact, police believe some of the leaders may be former military or ex-policemen.
Guginski says they'll rely on surprise, but if there is any resistance, they'll resort to violence: "We've had one individual that was followed from Long Island back into the city, where they actually cut him from ear to ear, cut his throat. He had the jewelry bag wrapped around his hand, and they actually took, like, a hatchet and tried to take off his wrist to get that bag."
Within 24 hours, the gems will have been re-cut and the precious metals melted down. Then, they're recycled back into the legitimate jewelry industry.
Guginski took 60 Minutes out on one of his operations, looking for South American thieves "shaping up," or meeting, on the streets.
"Sometimes you might not be sure what type of crime they're gonna go out that day to commit. And you'll have to surveil them and actually watch them for a little while," says Guginski.
This morning, Guginski became suspicious of some people inside a white minivan, which we shadowed for several hours through New York City, across the entire state of New Jersey and into eastern Pennsylvania.
The South American crews from New York travel as far as the Midwest, and can be gone for more than a week. Lieutenants in the organization, who are called hombres, select the types of crime, and the targets. They also supply the vehicles, expense money, and shopping lists.
The white minivan finally pulled into an outlet mall in Tannersville, Pa. It turned out to be a boosting team made up of three women. After several forays into the store, they spotted our camera, so Guginski, assisted by local police, moved in for the arrest.
They were all illegal aliens from Colombia. One was a fugitive, having jumped bail on a California burglary charge. Another had been arrested for shoplifting four months earlier and deported, but somehow got back into the United States. Because shoplifters are not considered serious criminals, they rarely spend much time in jail.
"These groups predetermine and have plans if somebody's arrested. If a team of eight goes out and two of those people are arrested, it's the responsibility of the other six to get the money together to bail 'em out and get 'em back out on the street," says Guginski.
Then, he says, they disappear, traveling to another city or assuming a new identity. The few cops who follow these groups say they've carved out a criminal niche, exploiting a system that lets people who commit property crimes off easily.
One professional shoplifter, "Roberto," became a confidential informant for the New York task force when they threatened to deport him to Chile. He says he worked five days a week, and went to jail once for 30 days – for stealing about $20,000 worth in clothing.
60 Minutes also talked to a retailer in California who said it's not uncommon to arrest these people and find them with plane tickets in their pocket for Kansas City or Chicago.
"I don't think anybody really has a good grasp on how central and how organized it really is," says Matsamato.