A survey by the National Retail Federation shows that almost no retailer is immune, whether the outlets are department or big-box stores, discounters, drugstores, supermarkets, restaurants or specialty chains.
"Criminals have become more desperate and brazen in their efforts, stopping at nothing to get their hands on large quantities of merchandise," Rich Mellor, NRF vice president of loss prevention, said in a statement. "Selling this stolen merchandise is a growing criminal enterprise."
More than 96 percent of the 125 retail companies surveyed said their businesses had been victims of organized retail crime in the past year, up from 94.5 percent the previous year.
The problem, which results in estimated annual losses of $15 billion to $30 billion, has worsened as the economy has stalled, stores have reduced staffing, and outlets for selling stolen goods have blossomed, the NRF said.
"Organized retail crime is something in particular we are concerned about and monitor," said Tara Darrow, a spokeswoman for Nordstrom, which was among the retailers reporting theft in the NRF survey.
Darrow said that the problem has worsened in the past several years and that the company has brought in experts to address it. Also, she said, Nordstrom is working with other retailers through regional associations to share information and explore possible solutions.
"We're all impacted by what's going on," Darrow said.
The Baltimore-Washington region is one of three new additions to the highest-ranking metropolitan areas for organized retail crime activity, according to the NRF's eighth annual survey. San Francisco and Orange County, Calif., were also new to the list. Other high retail crime metro areas include Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York and northern New Jersey, Atlanta and Phoenix.
Designer fashions, jeans, handbags, lingerie and accessories are the top stolen items, along with goods such as Kitchen Aid mixers, GPS devices, and educational toys and games, the NRF said.
At grocery and drug stores, criminals tend to grab infant formula, over-the-counter drugs, razor blades, and health and beauty products, while thieves at electronics stores target smartphones, tablets, cameras and MP3 players, the survey said.
Gangs typically organize large-scale thefts from a number of retail store locations and sell the stolen goods at pawn shops, flea markets or street corners, the report said, adding that merchandise also is sold online or through fraudulent returns to stores.
The survey did not cover losses from shoplifting.
"Organized retail crime rings are clever, using designated roles, such as driver, lookout, picker, packers and supervisor," the report said. "They use hand signals, cell phones, GPS devices and comprehensive shopping lists."
When apprehended, the gangs have become more violent, the survey shows. Retailers believe the offenders often are also engaged in drug crimes.
"Members of organized retail crime groups are frequently being found to be linked to street gangs, engaged in the sale of illegal substances, drugs or weapons, as well as involved in illegal immigration issues, money laundering and even terrorist financing activities," the NRF report said.
In Maryland, thefts have occurred while merchandise is en route from distribution centers to stores. In one case in southern Maryland, a trailer full of goods was stolen from a Kmart store, said Capt. Norman Dofflemyer, division commander for the commercial vehicle enforcement division for the Maryland State Police.
The division inspects commercial trucks and "makes sure they have what they are supposed to have and not what they're not supposed to have," Dofflemyer said, explaining that officials compare shipping papers to a truck's actual load.
He said cargo thefts are often reported to law enforcement by retail associations. Receiving a report quickly — before the goods can be sold — can be key in making arrests, Dofflemyer said.
Dofflemyer said retail theft schemes are often sophisticated.
"It's planned, and there is surveillance done," he said. "It's very calculated."
Awareness is growing among retailers and law enforcement officials, the NRF said, though the problem remains knotty.
"Though retailers continue to make great strides in their fight against organized retail crime, sophisticated criminals with unending opportunities and anonymous outlets to sell their stolen merchandise are proving to be quite challenging for both retailers and law enforcement agencies working to combat this issue," said Joe LaRocca, NRF senior asset protection adviser.