CHARLOTTE, N.C. (FOX 46 CHARLOTTE) – Online bargain hunters beware: You may be getting more than you bargained for.

If you shop online, like many people, you might be surprised to learn that the hot deal you just got might actually be “hot” as in stolen.

“They’re brazen,” said CMPD Det. Thomas Kendziora. “They’re bold and they just go in and take the items.”

Stolen items are turning up on sites like Facebook Marketplace, eBay, and OfferUp. That means a gift you got or an item you purchased cheap could be part of a police report.

“There’s a good chance that it’s stolen,” said Home Depot spokesperson Christina Cornell.

This souped-up shoplifting is known as organized retail crime. Professional thieves are working in groups to steal tens of thousands of dollars of merchandise, sometimes over several months, then turn to online marketplaces to sell it.

“They’re trying to resell these items very quickly,” said Cornell. “For cash.”

In some cases, the stolen goods are stored in warehouses big enough to be its own store. Police say thieves know which stores to target and what items have the most value.

“If there’s a retailer, they’re getting targeted,” said CMPD Det. Anthony Finocchio, who is part of an organized retail crime unit with Kendziora.

“This isn’t petty shoplifting,” Cornell told FOX 46 reporter Matt Grant. “It’s really sophisticated. And, for a lot of these people, it’s a business.”

Business is Booming

FOX 46 has reported on these types of retail thefts before. In 2019, CMPD started a task force to deal with the growing problem. The same year, Charlotte retailers lost $880,000 in property, according to CMPD.

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Last year, Home Depot was targeted by thieves in Rock Hill and Cornelius. A FOX 46 investigation uncovered more than a dozen photos of brand new power tools still in the box listed on OfferUp. Sources say they were stolen from the Rock Hill store as part of a $6,314 heist.

In Charlotte, a trio of perfume pilferers were arrested by Finocchio and Kendziora, accused of stealing $15,809 worth of fragrances from Sephora at the South Park Mall last year. The thefts allegedly occurred over the span of several months. A RIGID hand-held drain cleaner, which retails for $345, was offered up for sale as “new” on eBay for $239. Sources say it was stolen from a Home Depot in the Charlotte-metro area.

In Florida, an alleged baby formula and diaper theft ring stole $84,000 worth of items from retailers like Publix and Walmart.

“It’s happening in Charlotte. It’s happening in North Carolina,” said Cornell, who says the area is not “immune” to this nationwide problem. People need to be aware.”

‘That’s Called a Clue’

All of this is costing you money. Stores are increasing prices to make up for these losses. Communities lose out on sales tax, which helps pay for things like our schools, roads, and fire departments.

One red flag: If a seller has multiple brand new, in-the-box items for sale well below retail price.

“Why wouldn’t that individual just return that property to get the full amount?,” asked Finocchio. “If you see a website where there’s 50 tools on there and they’re all brand new and they’re selling for 40, 50 percent under retail, that’s called a clue.”

Here are some red-flags you should watch out for when you’re shopping online:

  • Items listed as brand new and in the box.
  • Stock photos or photos taken from a retailer’s website.
  • Look to see how many new in-box, or new with pricetag items are being sold. Multiple items of the same type being sold are a red flag.
  • If the seller says they can get an item “upon request.”

CMPD also has a list of ways you can protect yourself here. They include:

  • Use exchange zones to buy and sell products.
  • Meet during daylight hours and at a public place where you expect other people to be around.
  • Don’t go alone to meet a stranger.
  • If the deal seems too good to be true, it probably is.

The detectives says these crime rings are often connected to other violent crimes and the same repeat offenders.

“We have seen a nexus between violent crimes as far as homicides to assaults,” said Finnochio, “assaults on females, domestic violence.”

“They have these same people coming in and out of their doors and taking thousands of dollars of merchandise,” echoed Kendziora. “It has to be stopped.”

According to the National Retail Federation, 75 percent of large and mid-sized stores say organized retail crime is up. That’s an increase from 68 percent the year before. Losses average $719,000 for every $1 billion in sales, according to a NRF study from December.

In response, retailers are investing millions to fight back. Security companies are advertising high-tech weapons like hidden cameras in stores and GPS tracking devices tucked inside packaging to help disrupted these shopping syndicates even if they cross state lines. At Home Depot, FOX 46 saw power tools locked in cages and highly visible surveillance cameras aimed at the products with a video screen at eye level.

“This is a bigger, global problem,” said Finnochio. “And at the bottom line, it’s about making money.”

Marketplaces Respond

OfferUp and eBay both tell Grant the sites are monitored for stolen items, which are prohibited. Company officials say they work with law enforcement and federal authorities to stop fraud. Facebook did not respond to a request for comment.

eBay released the following statement:

“eBay is fully committed to providing a secure online shopping experience to millions of people globally. We have zero tolerance for criminal activity on our platform.  We have programs and policies in place to monitor our marketplace for stolen items. We also collaborate with government agencies to help prevent the sale of stolen goods on eBay.”

OfferUp released this statement:

“Selling stolen merchandise is prohibited on OfferUp and we work with our users and law enforcement to remove these items.

If users see an item, or a profile posting items for sale that seem suspicious, we ask them to use the  Report button at the bottom of an item detail screen or the top of a user profile screen. Please classify the issue using the provided menu of reporting reasons, and give a description of what happened so that we can begin our investigation and take appropriate action. 

In addition to investigating and addressing issues through the app, OfferUp partners closely with law enforcement. If you have encountered illegal activity or a crime, we strongly recommend contacting local authorities. The police will need relevant details from you, such as the user profile of the individual you were in contact with on OfferUp. Once you have made your report to local authorities, please encourage the investigating officer to Contact OfferUp and provide us with the following details of your case so we can work with the officer:

  1. Agency case number or event ID
  2. Investigative officer name
  3. Investigative officer phone number or email”