Organized shoplifting rings wreak havoc in Brooklyn Heights, merchants say

Stores beg NYPD, Brooklyn DA to take action

July 6, 2022 Mary Frost
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Why are Tide Pods, batteries, toothpaste and upscale facial cleansers disappearing from the shelves of drug stores and groceries in Brooklyn Heights and Downtown Brooklyn?

Local store owners say the main reason is that shoplifting is rampant, and easily resold items like these are targeted by professional thieves. These thieves, also known as “boosters,” are employed in an underground economy that is feeding off legitimate businesses.

“If someone is homeless, I give them something to eat,” Ivan Arguello, co-owner of Key Food with Enrico Palazio, told the Brooklyn Eagle. “Most of these people are not homeless. This is an organized operation.” 

He showed this reporter a photo of a brawny man walking out of the Montague Street grocery store with a fully loaded backpack. “The same people come over and over. And no consequences are happening to these people.” 

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Israel Fernandez, Key Food’s manager, told the Eagle, “I catch people on an almost daily basis. There is not one week that goes by that I don’t get at least three to four.” 

The Tide Pods laundry detergent section at CVS on Henry Street in Brooklyn Heights has been wiped out by professional shoplifters, an employee told the Brooklyn Eagle. Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

Fernandez said that the average dollar amount stolen by a thief in one visit is between $120 to $180. “The last time it was $256. Mostly they steal laundry detergent, and the second most is meat. Meat followed by frozen shrimp.”

Arguello showed this reporter a shelf that once held Tide Pods laundry detergent. “I don’t know if I’m going to order more,” he said.

Between crime on the subway and the brazen shoplifters, some employees are afraid to come to work, Arguello said. “My staff is a hard working class; they should never be exposed to danger at the work site.”

He worries that residents of Brooklyn Heights are not aware of what’s happening to their local businesses, and that if nothing is done, stores could close. “We employ over 65 people in the store,” he said. “That’s 65 families. Many of them have worked here for years.”

Arguello believes that bail reform has allowed career criminals to commit multiple thefts while their cases wind through the system.“It really upsets me that the people in my store were heroes for two years during COVID and this is how the city of New York is paying us back,” he said.

Key Food on Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights has removed Tide Pods laundry detergent from the shelves after most of them were stolen. A sign sternly warns that stealing will result in arrest and prosecution.
Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

Shoppers can’t find their favorite products

“I noticed that the shelves are bare,” said Heights resident Beverly Closs. “Also, as soon as I find a product I really like, they are out of stock or the signs for them are missing altogether.”

Closs’ husband Bill Closs said he noticed that deodorant and Tylenol have been locked up at the local CVS at 156 Henry St. 

An employee at the CVS confirmed that the store has had to lock up these everyday items.

“Shoplifting has skyrocketed,” said the employee, who asked to not be named because of corporate policy. “We used to know who the shoplifters were. Now there are lots of new faces.” The employee estimated that the store was losing “a couple of thousand per day, if we factor in what we’re not aware of.” 

Many of the shoplifters blend in with the neighborhood, the employee said. “One morning I was walking the floor. Some random dude was loading up his backpack with almost $400 worth of toothpaste. It was not a guy I would normally suspect.”

Even the locked shelves don’t stop professional thieves. “Another dude was here today. He’s got a key. They sell the keys and the magnets online,” the employee said.

Items most frequently targeted include “batteries, deodorants, toothpaste, Head & Shoulders shampoo, Tide Pods, Ensure, Vitamins D and Co Q-10, pain medications like aspirin and Tylenol, Neosporin and scar gel,” the employee said. “Anything not locked up. Our whole facial care and personal cleaning shelves are wiped out.

The employee believes that theft was the “prime reason” a nearby CVS at 168 Montague Street closed. “And they had the same problem at Rite Aid [also closed, at 101 Clinton St.]. They were open 24 hours, and they had theft 24/7.”

“I’ve been here a couple of years, and it’s just gotten worse,” the employee added. “We are not allowed to stop them. The store policy is to be safe.”

A spokesperson for CVS’ Northeast division declined to comment to the Eagle about the increase in theft at the drugstore chain, but according to the Wall Street Journal’s September 15, 2021 podcast episode “How to Stop a $45 Billion Crime Spree,” CVS’ reported thefts went up 30 percent overall during the pandemic. Ben Dugan, who leads the company’s investigations, told WSJ that the boosters are usually low-level members of organized crime rings. They are paid just 5 – 10 percent of the items’ value by people known as fences, he said. The fences usually sell the goods to higher level fences, and often the items end up in warehouses for resale.

“What we’re looking at are guys that steal, in bulk, specific products that are small, have high value, and are easily shipped,” Dugan told WSJ.

The owner of Key Foods on Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights is not sure if he wants to order more Tide Pods laundry detergent, since so much is stolen by professional thieves. Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

Duane Reade: ‘They break the cases’

Domingo Diaz, a manager at Duane Reade at 16 Court St., says the list of stolen items is long, but skin care products are frequently targeted. “If we lock the cases, they break them.”

The same thieves come back over and over, sometimes the same day, he said. “Having a security guard doesn’t help,” he said. Even if the thieves are arrested, “They casually let them out the same day with a slap on the wrist.”

“It’s everywhere,” Diaz added. “It was ten times worse at my previous store in Flatbush.”

The smaller stores get hit, too

An employee at City Chemist at 129 Montague St. said the smaller stores were also victimized.

“There’s nothing anybody can do, either,” the employee said. The items most frequently stolen at this location include toothpaste, soap, sunscreen and candles.

“They come with big totes from places like Whole Foods. I usually try to watch for them but it’s hard. It’s rough for a lot of small businesses,” the employee said, adding that things have gotten worse since the summer of 2020. 

“We have called the cops but they never catch them. Sometimes they’re a little aggressive. But usually, they get what they want and leave,” the employee said.

Many of the batteries on this rack at CVS on Henry Street in Brooklyn Heights have been stolen by professional “boosters.” Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

Trader Joe’s hires more security

A manager at Trader Joe’s at 130 Court St. in Cobble Hill, who asked to remain unnamed, told the Eagle that losses have declined since the store beefed up security.

“We recently got security back in the store. Just their presence has reduced theft,” the manager said. The Downtown Brooklyn Trader Joe’s at City Point also recently beefed up security, the manager said. Before the security guard, “They took a whole stack. It happened in multiple stores. That has stopped.”

The item most frequently stolen was meat, they said. “They sell it to other stores. I’ve heard there’s a whole market for it.” 

“But the vast majority of our customers are so great,” they added. “We’d rather focus on making sure people feel they have a good experience. Of course, some people take advantage of that.”

What’s behind the surge in crime?

Key Food’s Arguello believes that New York’s bail reform law is a major factor behind the surge in repeat offenders. “We are begging the governor of New York to review the bail reform,” he said. “The crime in my store has increased so much that we are hiring security, putting cameras all over the store.”

In 2019, New York State adopted bail reform, ending the levying of cash bail in most cases involving misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies. The law went into effect in 2020, just as the pandemic devastated the economy and crime increased nationwide. (In March, Gov. Kathy Hochul proposed changes to the law.)

Policy-oriented organizations such as the Brennan Center say there is no evidence that bail reform has driven the increase in crime, and the answers to solving the nation’s crime problems are not so simple.

But police say that when career thieves get back onto the street, they return to the same community to steal again.

The 84th Precinct’s Deputy Inspector Adeel Rana, at the precinct’s Community Council meeting on June 18, said he has heard multiple complaints from store owners, and recently met with the Brooklyn DA’s Office about the problem.

“The first thing I told them is, ‘We are arresting these people. If you are letting them out right away, where do you think they are going? They are going back to the same area to commit the same type of crime,’” Rana said. 

Rana gave attendees at the meeting an example of the expectations of professional shoplifters.

“We had arrested individuals at Macy’s. And while we were doing their processing, they were getting mad that we were taking too long — because they wanted to go to the Manhattan Macy’s and hit that store, and by the time they leave the precinct it’s going to be closed,” Rana said. “So just to give you the mindset of these individuals.”

He added, “Bail reform is a good thing if it’s used the right way, but bail reform is not made for people like that, who are going to be continuously terrorizing our community. I know in the past people said, ‘Oh well, it’s just a property crime.’ But guess what? Someone is losing money, someone is losing funds, and it’s going to affect everyone in the community.”

No simple solutions

Brooklyn Heights business owners recently met with representatives of the office of Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez in hopes of learning what, if anything, could be done.

“Representatives from our office have met with business owners and with the local precinct, and we will continue to coordinate and take a proactive approach to tackle this issue,” Oren Yaniv, spokesperson for the Brooklyn DA, told the Eagle. “These cases are taken seriously and are being prosecuted, especially those involving repeat offenders and members of organized theft rings.

“Our response also includes referrals to drug and mental health services in an effort to stop and prevent criminal behavior,” Yaniv said. “While it’s true that bail laws limit the circumstances under which offenders can be held while their cases are pending, we do ask for bail when appropriate and permissible, and pretrial release does not mean that defendants won’t face consequences for their actions. We will continue to seek accountability and improve public safety.” 

BID, BHA want to see a plan

The Montague Street BID (Business Improvement District) and the Brooklyn Heights Association are looking to the 84th Precinct and the DA’s Office to come up with a solution.

Kate Chura, president of the Montague Business Improvement District, told the Eagle that she has reached out to “many people, organizations and agencies,” including the 84th Precinct, the Mayor’s Office of Small Business Service, the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce and Montague BID board members. (The Eagle reached out to the Chamber and Councilmember Lincoln Restler but did not receive a response by press time.)

“I did attend the [recent] DA meeting,” Chura said. “I’ve also set up a meeting with Key Food and Councilmember Lincoln Restler to meet to discuss the matter and try to find some type of solution.”

The Brooklyn Heights Association (BHA) has been working to bring new businesses to Montague Street, with several recent success stories — including the Brooklyn Women’s Exchange and French bakery L’Appartement 4F. The rise in thefts is not welcome news to the historic neighborhood organization.

“I’ve been in touch with our 84th Precinct representatives along with Lincoln Restler’s office and other elected officials,” said BHA Executive Director Lara Birnback. “The BHA will continue to raise this as a critical issue for our business community and for residents.”

Birnback added, “I am hopeful that we will hear from the NYPD soon with a concrete plan for action. It’s absolutely imperative that all of our commercial corridors, including Montague Street, are both economically vibrant and safe.”

Key Food’s Arguello remains skeptical. “What kind of security is the DA going to offer us? Being patient is not enough,” he said.

Shoplifting ring busted in major case

As tough as it seems, catching the kingpins behind the theft rings is doable. On May 26, Mayor Eric Adams and New York Attorney General Letitia James revealed that a three-year joint investigation had taken down a 41-person operation in New York City. The ring had shoplifted and resold millions of dollars in items stolen from drug stores and luxury outlets. The items were resold on an eBay store called Treasure-Deals-USA.

“This wasn’t just shoplifting, but people going into stores and clearing off shelves as part of an organized crime ring,” Adams said in a statement. 

The NYPD and the AG’s Organized Crime Task Force recovered more than $3.8 million worth of stolen retail items from the enterprise’s alleged boss, Roni Rubinov; along with hundreds of stolen gift cards and cash.

The ring’s boosters would allegedly drop off the stolen items at Rubinov’s pawn shop or gold store in midtown Manhattan, Adams said. For stolen clothing, they were paid 6 to 8 percent of the item’s value. For drug store items and cosmetics, they received one to two dollars per item.

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