HACKENSACK, N.J. - The cardboard boxes stacked high in a South Hackensack warehouse don't look special. They're protected by little more than a couple of bolted doors and a padlocked delivery bay.
Yet they contain one of the hottest items on the black market.
"It's liquid gold," said Lt. David Salzmann, supervisor of the cargo theft and robbery unit of the New Jersey State Police. "It sells easily and for a lot of money, and it's very difficult to trace."
The boxes are loaded with designer perfume from the likes of Versace, Hugo Boss, and Elizabeth Arden.
Armed and savvy bandits have taken the high-priced cargo during several recent raids in New Jersey and elsewhere, and authorities are having little success stopping them.
In January, the South Hackensack warehouse was the target of one of the biggest robberies in Bergen County, N.J., in years.
Masked gunmen stormed the building, bound and gagged the owner and two employees with duct tape, and removed 600 cases of perfume worth about $500,000.
In a similar robbery in December, three men took $600,000 worth of perfume from a Toronto warehouse after binding workers with duct tape. And in July, a truck and shipping container loaded with perfume valued at $750,000 was stolen from a lot in Newark, N.J. Days later, the truck showed up empty in Palisades Park, N.J.
Also in July, armed robbers stole more than $1 million worth of perfume from a warehouse in Edison, N.J., taking the security-camera videotapes on their way out.
None of the holdups has been solved. Police say that's not surprising.
Criminals like perfume because investigators have difficulty tracking it down. Unlike other popular black market items, such as watches and VCRs, perfume bottles bear no markings that authorities can trace.
Stolen perfume frequently surfaces among street vendors in Manhattan and in discount shops along Bergenline Avenue in West New York, N.J., and Union City, N.J., and along St. Nicholas Avenue in upper Manhattan.
Yet while investigators may know that a certain wholesaler or retailer is dealing stolen perfume, they often can't prove the perfume is hot, said Michael Palermo, a detective with the FBI's Interstate Theft Task force in Newark.
"It's very difficult for us to make a prosecution," he said.
Criminals also like perfume because it comes in small packages worth a lot of money. Perfume's size makes it easier to haul and hide than other products. A pickup truck full of perfume would likely fetch more money than a tractor-trailer loaded with top-shelf vodka, Palermo said.
"One case of perfume is more valuable than one case of almost anything else," Palermo said. "That's why it's a very hot product."
That's not likely to change, either.
A representative of the Cosmetic, Toiletry, and Fragrance Association said the group has never addressed perfume theft.
One explanation may be that thefts typically occur after the manufacturer has sold the product to a wholesaler.
And because stolen perfume usually ends up on the racks of discount retailers, who sell it for less than department stores, consumers are not troubled by perfume thefts.
Among those who do care about the rash of thefts are Dusan Daryani and other perfume wholesalers.
Daryani, who owns D'Scent Inc., was working when the robbers walked into the South Hackensack warehouse with guns drawn. Daryani said he ran to a phone to call 911, but just as he picked up the receiver, he was grabbed by the neck and tossed to the ground.
A masked man used tape to bind Daryani's mouth, arms, and legs, then pulled his sweater over his head and made him lie on the floor.
"Keep your face down or I'll blow your brains out," Daryani said he was told.
He lay there under guard for 45 minutes, along with the two employees, as an unknown number of people loaded a truck with boxes from his warehouse.
"I was totally shaken up," Daryani said. "I was praying all the time."
Daryani has been in the business for 17 years, buying large quantities of perfume from manufacturers and selling to small wholesalers in Miami, Texas, California, New York, and New Jersey. He had never been robbed before.
Now he's beefing up security at the 6,000-square-foot warehouse, beginning with security cameras and panic buttons at employees' desks.
Investigators are concerned about the perfume bandits' confrontational tactics. Cargo thieves typically break into warehouses and shipyards after hours rather than storming in with guns, primarily because the use of weapons increases the penalty if they are caught, Palermo said.
"What we're seeing is very extreme," he said.
South Hackensack police said they missed confronting the truck of gun-toting thieves by a minute or two. An encounter could have resulted in gunfire.
Daryani wriggled free and called 911 the moment the man guarding him headed for the truck. The responding officer was about two blocks away when a dispatcher sent him to the warehouse. When the officer arrived, all he found was Daryani and the employees peeling duct tape from their arms and legs.
The robbers knew exactly what they were after, taking only high-end fragrances, said Detective Sgt. Robert Kaiser. They left behind torn open cases of drugstore colognes, such as Aqua Velva.
The robbers appeared to be veterans: They worked calmly and efficiently, leaving behind few useful clues, Kaiser said. The only unusual piece of evidence police found was a bag of Skittles candy, which is being analyzed at the state police laboratory.
"They were pretty schooled in street knowledge," Kaiser said. "We don't have much to go on."
The criminals also likely had inside information about the warehouse, a two-story building which, from the outside, gives no indication of the perfume inside. The company's name isn't even on the door.
Most cargo crimes result from inside information, Salzmann said. Prime suspects tend to be former employees or recent hires.
"You just have to turn over a lot of stones, and you have to get lucky," he said. "But as the old saying goes, 'You have to be good to get lucky.'"
Undercover work is usually the most successful approach.
One of the biggest perfume busts in New Jersey history was in 1996, after nearly 50,000 bottles of Drakkar Noir perfume valued at $2.2 million were takenfrom a Jersey City cargo terminal.
After getting a tip, undercover investigators posing as fences went to a storage facility in Edison, where three man tried to sell them $42,000 worth of Drakkar Noir. Five people were arrested.
Daryani said he hopes the police can use similar tactics to track the current group of perfume bandits.
"This is becoming a dangerous business," he said.