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North Texas feds say crime ring traveled US to steal retail goods and sell on Amazon

Amazon's autonomous warehouse robots. (YouTube)

The next time you make a purchase on Amazon, you may be buying stolen goods.

More than two-dozen people have been charged in federal court in Dallas with being part of a crime ring in which thieves shoplifted goods from retail stores across the U.S. like Walmart and Best Buy. They then sold the products on online platforms such as Amazon and eBay, according to the indictment.

The thieves used custom-sewn “booster skirts” with bag-like compartments inside to steal products, and they used “electronic transmitters” that interfered with stores’ anti-theft devices, the indictment said. They sent the stolen loot to Chicago to be kept in storage lockers. From there, many items ended up at the suburban Coppell home of a married couple who posted the merchandise for sale on their Amazon and eBay storefronts, according to the indictment.

The crime ring operated from 2014 to September 2019, when the indictment was filed under seal.

“The crux of the indictment is that a group of individuals traveled the United States stealing retail products from big-box consumer stores, shipping the product to middlemen in Chicago, who then shipped some of the product on to an online fence in Coppell, Texas,” said the prosecutors, P.J. Meitl and Nicholas Bunch, in a November filing.

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Only nine of the 26 defendants have so far been arrested, court records show.

The Coppell couple, Changcheng Li and Kaifeng Hu, are charged with Conspiracy to Commit Interstate Transportation of Stolen Property and Interstate Transportation of Stolen Property Aiding and Abetting. They were arrested in September during a raid of their Coppell house and have been released pending trial.

“I believe my client will be exonerated,” said Aaron Wiley, an attorney for Hu.

“My client, Mr. Li, is prepared to challenge these allegations in court,” said his attorney, Nick Oberheiden. “Just like all defendants, Mr. Li is entitled to a presumption of innocence and a fair trial, and he is looking forward to telling his side of the story in court.”

Organized theft cost retailers a record high of $703,320 per $1 billion in sales in 2019, according to the National Retail Federation. The federation has estimated that annual losses come to $30 billion nationwide.

Such crimes are getting the attention of Congress. Last week, two U.S. senators introduced a bill to force online retail marketplaces like Amazon to authenticate the identity of “high-volume third-party sellers.”

The Integrity, Notification, and Fairness in Online Retail Marketplaces for Consumers (INFORM Consumers) Act is proposed by senators Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, and Bill Cassidy, a Republican from Louisiana, to combat the “online sale of stolen, counterfeit, and dangerous consumer products.”

Third-party sellers would have to provide government and tax identification, as well as bank account information. The law would apply to vendors who made 200 or more sales in a 12-month period amounting to at least $5,000. Also, consumers would be able to see basic identification and contact information for online sellers of consumer products.

Representatives of Amazon and eBay could not be reached for comment.

Stanislaw Kobylarczyk, Artur Gilowski, Robett Kurpiel, and Piotr Greszta were arrested in September 2019 in the Chicago area and released pending trial, authorities said.

Kobylarczyk and Gilowski operated retail stores in the Chicago area that acted as fronts for the sale of stolen goods, the indictment said. The pair also sold stolen merchandise from online stores on Amazon and eBay, according to the indictment. Kurpiel and Greszta worked for Gilowski, the indictment said.

“Mr. Gilowski intends to plead not guilty, rely on the presumption of his innocence, and have his attorney fight for him,” said his attorney, Patrick McLain.

Zbigniew Majewski and Krystyna Wisniewska, both Polish nationals, were arrested in October 2019 and remain in federal custody on an immigration detainer, the government said. They traveled the nation stealing goods from “brick and mortar” retail stores, according to the indictment.

Sandro Kozlowski, who is accused of stealing goods and operating storage lockers for them, was arrested in the Chicago area in December 2019, court records say. A federal magistrate judge ruled that Kozlowski should be detained because he was in the U.S. on an expired visa, had lived in Poland until 2014 and has significant ties to that country.

Li is accused of creating fake invoices for the stolen goods that he sent to Amazon to make it appear he acquired them legitimately, the indictment says.

Other defense attorneys either declined to comment or could not be reached.

Because the case involves people with limited ties to the U.S. who travelled around the country to steal retail products, law enforcement had to use “additional resources,” prosecutors said. They said in November that the government believed eight of the defendants were “out of the country.”

Money was sent to bank accounts in Poland, as part of the conspiracy, the indictment said. Federal authorities seized more than $160,000 from a bank account at the Polish & Slavic Federal Credit Union, court records say.

“The ease with which organized criminal networks can utilize the anonymity of online marketplaces to fence stolen goods has led to a proliferation of organized theft targeting local retailers,” Mary Dillion, chair of the Retail Industry Leaders Association, told the Retail Leader, an industry publication, this week.

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© 2020 The Dallas Morning News