Why Are Criminals Stealing Tide Detergent and Using It for Money?

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There's a new liquid asset in town. It's blue, it's viscous, and it's versatile: You can pour it in a machine with your clothes, or sell it for pot. Meet the weird and wild world of Tide bandits.

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If recent media reports are to be believed, there's a new fad sweeping America's criminal underworld: detergent theft. 

Earlier this week, The Daily's M.L. Nestel wrote that Tide liquid laundry soap appears to have become a favorite target of shoplifters around the nation, who are jacking the product from store shelves in bulk, then selling it on the black market. Thieves simply load up shopping carts full of the bright orange bottles, then bolt out the door. One con in Minnesota appears to have liberated $25,000 worth of the stuff in 15 months before he was eventually arrested. Meanwhile, police in Prince George's County, Maryland have taken to calling Tide "liquid gold." According to the Associated Press, officers there say that drug dealers have started urging their clientele to pay with Tide bottles in lieu of cash. 

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A alleged quote from one dealer: "I'm out of marijuana right now, but when I get re-upped I'll hook you up if you can get me 15 bottles of Tide."

Dialogue from The Wire, this is not. However, there may be something deeper going on here than a bunch of quirky crooks. It's possible we're getting a peak into the world of organized retail crime -- or ORC, as the government likes to abbreviate it.*

ORC, INC.

"Each year, organized groups of professional shoplifters steal or fraudulently obtain billions of dollars in retail merchandise," says the Government Accountability Office, which released a report on the epidemic last June. Criminals tend to pilfer products that are small and expensive -- razor blades, infant formula, gift cards, teeth whitening products, cosmetics, and over-the-counter medications, for instance. While it's a little bulkier than most of the items on that list, a bottle of Tide would seem to make a good target because it's a leading brand, everybody needs it, and it's pricey; one bottle can cost up to $20 retail, and it allegedly sells on the street for between $5 and $10. 

According to the GAO, ORC cartels are usually divided in two -- there are "boosters," who actually go out and steal the merchandise, and "fences," who sell it. While I'm dubious that our government's researchers are really up on their street slang, they do provide a handy chart, which breaks down the structure of your average ORC outfit.

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There are three ways the merchandise tends to get sold off. Fencers can (1) sell the goods at pawn shops or flea markets, (2) return it to the store for a refund, or (3) set up shop on a website like eBay. In recent years, the online auction house has actually been working with law enforcement and retailers to try and clamp down on criminal activity. 

It's difficult to put a hard dollar figure on the amount of merchandise stolen by these groups. Estimates range between $15 and nearly $40 billion a year, but the GAO found that most of those guesses were based on vague, highly unreliable data. Merchants say it's increasingly taking a toll on their businesses, however. In a recent survey by the National Retail Foundation, 95 percent of companies said they had been victimized by ORC during the last year, and 64 percent had "seen an increase" in ORC during the same time frame. 

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Retailers have spent years pushing states and Congress for legislation targeting ORC syndicates, including laws that would make it easier to bring felony prosecutions against their members and lay stiffer penalties on criminals who are convicted. They've have had more luck on the local level than on Capitol Hill. However, the FBI is known to get involved in particularly large cases, particularly if they involve goods that get transported over state lines.  

From the news stories out there so far, there's no indication that the detergent thefts are the product of a specific organized effort. But when drug dealers and work-a-day crooks in different corners of the country start stealing thousands of dollars worth of a product, it usually isn't entirely by chance. For a someone tied into the right criminal network, Tide would make for a pretty good liquid asset. 

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*If you're as geeky as I am, you too are now imagining what it would be like to shoplift from Mordor.

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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