5 accused of running elaborate theft ring targeted local Walmart stores

Five Georgia residents have been accused of participating in a multi-million dollar theft ring that targeted Walmart stores in Northeast Florida and others around the country.

According to the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, the investigation found the suspects operated in at least 13 different states throughout the United States in a seven-month time span. In Florida, the suspects are believed to have hit Walmart stores in 39 different counties, including Alachua, Clay, Columbia, Duval, Flagler, Putnam and St. Johns.

It is estimated the suspects have stolen approximately $3.6 million from retailers since at least 2014.

Two suspects have been arrested, one suspect died of natural causes, and two suspects have warrants out for their arrest, authorities said. There are also three additional suspects that investigators are attempting to identify.

Investigators said members of the group purchased expensive televisions from a Walmart store for cash, removed the new TVs and replaced them with salvaged TVs, returned them for cash, and kept and re-sold the new stolen televisions.

“Criminals like these are the reason our agency has a full-time Organized Retail Crime unit, working hand-in-hand with loss prevention personnel, retailers, and other agencies, to take a closer look at what might appear to some to be a ‘victimless’ crime. This is not ‘shoplifting’ - this rises to the level of racketeering, and the truth is, everyone suffers -consumers and businesses alike,” said Grady Judd, Polk County Sheriff, in a press release.

The investigation started in August of 2019 at an Auburndale Walmart where three men were seen making suspicious merchandise returns.

Working with Walmart investigators, records show losses to the retailer during the time of this investigation, between August 15, 2019 and March 24, 2020, includes approximately 600 fraudulent transactions that resulted in a loss of about $300,000. About $174,000 was stolen from Walmart stores located in Florida, investigators said.

The suspects face charges including fraud and racketeering.

While it’s viewed as a major criminal operation, News4Jax Crime and Safety Expert Ken Jefferson said this is not only type of fraud that is hurting Floridians.

“There are so many scams going on right now. A lot of them happening over social media, over the telephone and in person as we saw with this,” Jefferson said.

Jefferson said the latest theft ring involving these suspected thieves will put a lot of retailers on high alert this holiday shopping season. And he says retailers aren’t the only ones who should be mindful of the tricks by people who commit fraud.

“The basic consumer. You and I. We have to be on high alert because scammers are everywhere,” he added. “They’re calling your phone. They’re invading your email. They’re doing all sorts of things to try and get you to give them something and usually it’s money or some type of goods of some sort.”

According to law enforcement, up to $60 billion is stolen from businesses nationwide as a result of fraud and theft.

Ashley Moody says since she took over as Florida Attorney General, her office has arrested 180 people for organized retail theft and they will continue to go after these people.

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