What it took to bust a multi-million dollar ORC ring

Monday, September 13, 2010

LAKELAND, Fla.—For 10 years, Publix Super Market’s stores were subjected to millions of dollars worth of losses from an organized retail crime theft ring. In August 2009, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement busted the operation, according to an article in WFTV. But the arrest of 18 individuals involved in the theft ring represents year’s worth of work by the store’s loss prevention team.

On Aug. 31, John Hawthorne, senior manager of loss prevention/distribution at Publix Super Markets, discussed the store’s approach to combating ORC in a RILA webinar, Building Blocks of an ORC Task Force: Staffing, Tools and Investigative Techniques to Create an Effective Team to Combat ORC.

The first step in forming an ORC team is to understand what the company is up against. “Make no mistake about it, this is a business for them and they mean to make money,” said Hawthorne. “You have weaknesses that criminals have learned to exploit and as retailers we have processes and merchandizing strategies that make for a customer friendly environment, but also makes for soft targets.”

The company’s ORC team needs to understand the workings of an ORC group: what type of merchandise is being targeted, how it’s being fenced, and the organizational structure of the theft ring.

Retailers need to take the reigns of combatting ORC and while law enforcement and other retailers are important partners, it is often up to individual retailers to build their own cases. “Just filling out a police report at a retail location of an ORC incident and related crimes is generally not going to work,” said Hawthorne. “These investigations are too big and too complicated for law enforcement to understand what’s going on without our help.” Theft rings often cross jurisdictional and state lines, so retailers can’t depend on an individual police department for assistance, especially during the preliminary stages of an investigation.

In terms of who needs to be part of the team, Hawthorne said it was critical to have a dedicated analyst who puts all the pieces together. “Remember that ORC investigations are intelligence driven and largely about bringing information in and deciphering it and figuring out what groups are operating,” he said. Publix also has specialty field personnel who ensure the investigation happens the way it should. It is also important to have the support of management in the field to recognize incidents of ORC as well as corporate management to provide necessary program funding and support.

Training is also essential in developing an effective ORC team. Publix trains its ORC staff on interviewing and interrogating techniques as well as how to recognize ORC crimes. It’s important for the company to establish parameters about what constitutes an ORC incident versus standard shoplifting.

Having the right technology in place is also an important component for an effective ORC program. Publix uses a surveillance van, which has a four-channel CCTV system, which includes a long-range camera that can read a license plate tag from 1,000 feet, said Hawthorne. They also use a variety of covert cameras and infrared technology for surveillance. The van is also equipped with GPS, which functions as a duress system in case the operator is in trouble. The van has been a worthy investment, said Hawthorne. “For the complete system we spent less than $10,000 to build. That’s not very expensive considering the tool it is,” he said.

They also have digital radios that they use to communicate within their team and also share the frequency with other retailers for joint surveillance efforts.

Publix uses these tools, both technology to trained personnel, to build a case for law enforcement. “Our goal is to walk into a law enforcement agency and be able to tell the story of what’s going on and who the players are before we bother them for investigations because we know we’re asking for big thing,” he said. “We know we usually just get one good shot at that and we want to make sure we’ve done our homework before walking into the room.”