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US attorney: Size of online platforms a factor in selling of shoplifted goods

theft ring.jpg
Stephen Pingry
Tulsa World via AP
Left to right: U.S. Attorney Clint Johnson, Tulsa Police Department Chief Wendell Franklin, and Attorney General John O'Connor announce federal and state charges at a Tulsa press conference Thursday

The U.S. Attorney for the Northern District Clint Johnson and Attorney General John O’Connor held a press conference with Tulsa law enforcement Thursday.

The purpose was to announce federal and state charges against 29 defendants who allegedly took part in a “large scale retail theft ring” in Oklahoma and other states.

Law enforcement said the ringleader of the group is a woman who paid people to steal beauty and health items from stores like Walmart. She then sold the items on eBay for double the price she paid to the shoplifters.

The people who bought the stolen goods were other fencing organizations still under investigation.

“In turn, those fencing organizations sold the products to e-commerce sites like Amazon and eBay, to unsuspecting customers who had no guarantee if the product effectiveness or the integrity were maintained once they were in the hands of these criminals,” said Johnson.

Despite the heavy use of online platforms, the companies were not mentioned as being under scrutiny.

“When you start talking about the size of some of these tech companies, and you start talking about the width and breadth of eBay . . . I’m not willing to impute any knowledge to Amazon or eBay or anybody there that they knew. These are just large platforms more than anything else,” said Johnson.

Johnson said online platforms now function like seedy pawn shops of the past. However, CNBC estimates Amazon is worth over $1 trillion. eBay has a worth in the billions.

Some lawmakers have been agitating for restrictions to cut down on shady sales.

The retail theft ring itself netted $4.5 million in profit, Johnson said.

Products that were stolen and sold online include allergy medications, hair growth products, nasal sprays, teeth whiteners, and smoking cessation products.

When asked if the "highly organized" ring was fueled by drug addiction, Johnson demurred.

“I think you can draw a lot of different conclusions,” said Johnson. “Criminal activity is driven by need. We have 29 individuals charged, and probably each one of those individuals had a different reason why they did what they did.”

The thefts started in 2019, but some of the shoplifters in the ring didn’t start stealing until after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Attorney General John O’Connor said the high rate of hardship in the country is not an excuse.

“There are lots of ways for people to get food and shelter that don’t drive them to a life of crime. We need to be careful. This is a focus on the rule of law, this is a focus on law enforcement, this is a focus on confidence in our system.”

Before joining Public Radio Tulsa, Elizabeth Caldwell was a freelance reporter and a teacher. She holds a master's from Hollins University. Her audio work has appeared at KCRW, CBC's The World This Weekend, and The Missouri Review. She is a south Florida native.