Black Market Billions: How Organized Retail Crime Funds Global Terrorists

Black Market Billions: How Organized Retail Crime Funds Global Terrorists

Author: Hitha Prabhakar
Publisher: Upper Saddle River, NJ: FT Press, 2012. 316p.
Reviewer: Gohar A. Petrossian | November 2012

When hearing about organized shoplifting or organized retail theft, one would rarely draw an association between that crime and terrorism. Even with organized shoplifting becoming an increasingly big problem in the United States (a “$33 billion a year black market operation” (p.11)), very few are aware of the serious challenges it has presented to U.S. national security. The challenges lie in organized shoplifting groups’ increasing involvement in funding foreign terrorist activities that have significantly impacted the United States in the past ten years. Few studies have attempted to explore this link, and thus Hitha Prabhakar’s book hits the mark.

Prabhakar provides a first glance into the problem by introducing the reader to the operations run and funded by major terrorist organizations that include Partiya Karleren Kurdistan in Iraq, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the IRA in Ireland, and the Hezbollah, Hamas and Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan and India. She then links these operations to the funds channeled through organized retail theft activities within the United States. By discussing a few significant organized retail theft cases exposed in the past decade in the United States, Prabhakar demonstrates the clear link between organized criminal groups and their involvement in financing the terrorist groups mentioned above.

The author then moves on to discuss how the organized retail theft groups operate, what types of goods they move, and most importantly, how they adapt to law enforcement’s changing tactics, such as moving from selling goods in the streets to establishing accounts in online auction sites. Their operations have, thus far been successful, as the demand for high-value, luxury and designer goods has not waned despite the instability of the U.S. economy in the past few years. This very demand for the types of goods that the groups can provide has been feeding their business and ensuring their very survival.

The profit loss to organized retail theft has, undeniably, had significant impact on  U.S. retailers. Despite this noteworthy problem, however, very few loss prevention personnel are aware of the gravity of the problem and acknowledge that their stores do indeed suffer significant losses to organized retail theft groups. Theft from store’s warehouses, employee theft (those having direct links with the organized criminal groups), and inability to hire well-qualified employees are some of the internal problems that eventually lead, or rather contribute to the stores’ inability to fight organized retail theft groups. However, the author argues, that with little effort and willingness to realize and accept the problem, there is the possibility for a success story. The author provides several case studies to demonstrate that indeed the willingness to make concerted efforts with law enforcement have proven effective in dismantling large organized retail theft groups. Consequently, the author’s emphasis on the willingness to ‘get involved’ is crucial in addressing the problem well in advance, before the impact of organized retail theft on the retailers becomes irreparable.

Part II of the book is devoted to clearly outlining the operations of these groups, as well as discussing the strict roles of its members. Profiles of the members and their distinct functions that include “boosters” and “fences”, as well as “purchasers,” “cargo thieves” and other responsibilities, are discussed in great detail to provide the reader with not only a clear image of how these operations are carried out, but also to highlight the complexity and, most importantly the organization and hierarchy of the operations. Each member has a distinct role, and each member is an ‘expert’ in the role he or she is assigned, and it is this understanding among the members of the groups that makes their operations possible.

The author revisits the link between  organized retail theft groups and terrorism, and such related crimes as money laundering and terrorism in later chapters of the book. She argues that these groups operate with a political agenda, which primarily concerns funding extremist ideas and terrorism. Through a discussion and synthesis of specific case studies, the author defends the validity of these arguments by systematically laying out a roadmap to establish this link.

The book ends with the assertion that much more needs to be done to address the problem — other than the few preventative measures that have been attempted or implemented to date. Mere definitions in the laws that were designed to address organized criminal activities, such as the RICO statute and more recent laws addressing terrorism, have hindered law enforcement’s efforts to systematically and effectively deal with the problem. As such, the author ends the book with the big question that still lacks an answer, and this is “will the problem ever end?”

Prabhakar’s book is important reading for those directly involved in the investigation of organized retail theft and related crimes. It is also useful reading for those who are involved with issues related to transnational crime, terrorism, money laundering and internet crime. Additionally, the book is a good reference on important cases that have been uncovered in the past several years and how these have been handled. Undoubtedly, Prabhakar’s work significantly contributes to understanding of the problem of organized retail theft from the point of view of its undisputed link to terrorism.

Gohar A. Petrossian is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Sociology, William Paterson University.

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