ORLANDO, Fla. – Suspects in a retail theft ring used fake barcodes to purchase expensive items from stores in nine states across the South, resulting in $300,000 in stolen merchandise, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
FDLE Orlando special agent in charge Lee Massie announced Monday afternoon that three members of the retail theft ring had been arrested so far and authorities are still looking to take two more suspects into custody.
Agents said Usman Ali was the leader of the ring, which began operating in January in 23 Florida counties as well as Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee.
Ali would enter a Home Depot or Target location and place a high-value item, such as a smart lighting dimmer switch kit valued at $100 or a wifi thermostat worth $200, in a shopping cart in a way that it would be concealed, according to authorities.
He would then place a fraudulently printed barcode -- usually from an $8 electric outlet or a $20 rotary tool accessory kit -- over the item’s actual barcode, Massie said.
At that point, officials said Ali would leave the store and communicate with one of his “hired hands” to go into the location, get the items from the cart and purchase them with the fake barcodes, either through self-checkout or by going through a lane with a cashier.
The items would be shipped to Ali, who would sell the items online for near-retail value, according to authorities.
“While the idea is simple, these criminals went to great lengths to plan and conceal the thefts so the ring could operate undetected probably for years to come,” Massie said.
He said loss prevention specialists at Home Depot noticed in about April that there was a discrepancy between the inventory they had in stock and what had been reported as sold. FDLE agents began investigating in May.
Ali was taken into custody on Friday on charges of racketeering, conspiracy to commit racketeering and grand theft. Rand Clark and Gwendolyn Walker have been arrested as well while Harold Wilson and Keith Conyers are not yet in custody, according to a news release.
Agents said they’re also looking to determine what other retail locations were targeted in the operation.
The suspects in the ring committed 150 thefts, during which they stole $300,000 worth of merchandise, according to FDLE. About $150,000 of merchandise was stolen from retailers in Florida, records show.
“This case is significant, not only because of the level of thefts occurring, but also because this criminal ring was actively operating until we put the suspects in jail,” Massie said.
Home Depot spokesperson Christina Cornell said store officials are working to prevent theft at self-checkout registers and fully-manned registers.
“We have numerous measures in place to prevent crime in our stores and are constantly testing new things, but it would be counterproductive to discuss the specifics,” Cornell said. “We don’t want to give anyone information that would help them commit these crimes.”
Massie said ultimately, consumers have to pay for crimes like these because retailers will often raise prices to make up for the loss of stolen items.
“As Floridians head to the stores to kick off the holiday shopping season, I hope the dismantling of this retail theft ring makes the season a little brighter, not only for the retailers, but also for the consumers who shop at their stores,” Massie said.
Anyone who has information about the ring is asked to call Crimeline at 1-800-423-TIPS (8477).