May 19, 2024

California authorities have busted a nationwide shoplifting operation wide open. At the center of this story is a middle-aged California mom who is accused of masterminding the scheme.

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The operation, which targeted hundreds of stores including Ulta, Sephora, LensCrafters, and others was uncovered after an investigation by the California Department of Justice. Those involved are believed to have pilfered almost $8 million in high-end makeup and clothing in an ongoing heist that started nearly a decade ago.

A California mom is accused of orchestrating a nationwide shoplifting scheme that stole millions of dollars worth of makeup and clothing from hundreds of stores for more than a decade, according to the California Department of Justice.

According to a complaint filed by California Attorney General Rob Bonta, more than $300,000 worth of makeup and other products were found in Michelle Mack, 53, and Kenneth Mack’s shared Bonsall home when a search warrant was served on Dec. 6, 2023.

Mack allegedly paid for air fares, hotels and car rental costs for up to a dozen women who would go out and steal goods before sending them to Mack’s home. Mack would then allegedly sell the stolen goods at a discount on her Amazon Marketplace storefront.

Her group, which investigators have called the ‘California Girls’, operated in more than a dozen states around the country, targeting outlets including LensCrafters, Sephora and at least 231 Ulta stores, according to NBC San Diego.

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Mack, her husband, and accomplices have been slapped with 140 felony charges including conspiracy to commit organized retail theft, grand theft, and receipt of stolen property.

In a press release, California Attorney General Rob Bonta characterized the operation as “a multimillion-dollar criminal scheme” that was “complex” and “orchestrated.”

While shoplifting schemes like this already exist, the authorities indicate that some are highly sophisticated operations involving several moving parts.

CNBC has spent about eight months embedding with various law enforcement agencies and investigating theft groups to understand what organized retail crime looks like from the ground. In some cases, CNBC witnessed low-level shoplifting incidents involving people who appeared to be homeless or mentally ill. In other instances, CNBC saw takedowns of alleged organized theft groups that police said were reselling stolen merchandise at flea markets. Mack’s group, from her alleged network of professional thieves to her lucrative Amazon marketplace, was by far the most sophisticated one CNBC tracked alongside police.

But federal agents with Homeland Security Investigations, the Department of Homeland Security’s law enforcement branch, said some crime groups are even more elaborate — and theft is just one facet of their enterprises.

“We’re talking about operations that have fleets of trucks, 18-wheelers that have palletized loads of stolen goods, that have cleaning crews that actually clean the goods to make them look brand new,” said Adam Parks, an assistant special agent in charge at HSI, which is the main federal agency investigating retail crime.

“Just like any business, they’ve invested their capital into business assets like shrink wrap machines, forklifts,” Parks, who works out of HSI’s Baton Rouge, Louisiana, office, told CNBC in an interview. “That is what organized theft looks like, and it actually is indistinguishable from other e-commerce distribution centers.”

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Each of the defendants has pleaded not guilty, which could set the stage for a prolonged case.

However, court records show that the prosecution’s evidence could be damning.

Court records also revealed incriminating texts between Mack, her husband, and some of the other women charged, authorities alleged.

“I’m not stealing regular I’m going to start filling up my bag quick. So I want to know stuff I can grab in bulks too,” defendant Kimora Lee Gooding texted Mack on Jan. 7, 2023.

Days later, Mack texted her husband, “Even without Lancome we still did well,” and he texted her “Lots of orders let’s get shipping.”

In an interview, Bonta called on Amazon and other online marketplaces to “do more” to catch these crimes and inform law enforcement:

If you freeze out the demand and remove the market by closing out the marketplace where the stolen goods are so easily sold, you make organized retail crime as an organized crime less attractive. And we need to create barriers, instead of ease, for the ability to commit these crimes.

This revelation comes amid a widespread national rise in shoplifting across the country. In states and cities whose governments have been lenient in addressing the issue, stores are losing billions of dollars through rampant smash-and-grab and other theft operations.

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Related: NY Times: Don’t Worry About the $112.1B in Shoplifting, It’s a Right-Wing Narrative

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