Retailers are under siege these days. Over the last month or so, numerous reports of cybersecurity breaches resulting in the theft of credit card numbers and personal information have surfaced. Though the breaches affecting Target and Neiman Marcus have received most of the press coverage, Reuters reports that at least three other major retailers have had their systems hacked in similar fashion of late.

But while such events are a major public-relations black eye for these retailers that likely will result in some lost business—at least until consumers start trusting them again—those losses pale in comparison to what organized retail crime (ORC) costs them annually. According to the National Retail Federation, ORC losses amount to roughly $30 billion each year, and about 94% of all retailers experience it on some level.

According to David Williams, Cook County (Ill.) assistant state’s attorney, “boosters” are at the heart of the ORC problem. These are individuals—usually affiliated with a street gang—who work with local fences, who sell the stolen goods. The fences give them a shopping list of items that they believe can be moved at any given time; the boosters then descend on multiple stores to gather the items, Williams said. 

“These are not your run-of-the-mill shoplifters,” he said.

They fly under the radar, in part, because they typically limit what they take from each store and focus on easy-to-conceal items –such as razors, toiletries and baby formula—to avoid being noticed. Often their efforts are abetted by the retailers themselves, because many stores have inadequate or non-existent video surveillance and store security. Even when store security is in place, many retailers have non-pursuit policies, preferring that the police handle it. However, by the time the police arrive, the thieves are long gone.

Another favorite ORC tactic is the creation of bogus credit cards and IDs. The process starts with the pickpocketing of a wallet from an unsuspecting store patron or subway rider. The wallets are given to another gang member, who uses what Williams called a “re-coder plant” to create duplicate credit cards and driver’s licenses using a fake name but the legitimate credit card number.

According to Williams, the re-coders can churn out a new credit card and matching ID in as little as 30 minutes, if they are working out of a car. It is not unusual for a pickpocket to grab a wallet, hop off the train at the next stop, hand it off to a re-coder who is following along in his car, and then hop on the next train to hunt for the next victim, he said.