There’s a new twist on an old crime. And you may never know it’s happening in front of you as you shop for groceries or pick up your prescription medications at the drug store.
It’s called "fencing" and low-ticket items like razor blades, baby formula and energy drinks are in demand across the Chicago area.
NBC 5 Investigates has found a tangled web of players in the fencing game.
From the so-called "boosters" who steal common grocery or drugstore merchandise, to the "fencers" who buy the stolen items, to the "cleaners" who repackage the goods and dump them back on the market.
“It was like money in the bank," said a former booster who asked not to be identified. "If I know I could go get the product, all I have to do is get out of the store with it and I know I got my drug."
He said he boosted items like Red Bull several times a day from a suburban grocery store for two years to support a heroin addiction.
"Walk in to the store dressed nice, they don't even look twice at you," he said.
The ex-booster said he would carry his loot out of the store, hop on an "L" train and take the items to his fencer.
"I knew that they would take my product, whatever I brought them, at any time," he said. "As long as the store was open they would buy it from me."
However, he was caught and is now helping police.
Investigators said fencing is only getting bigger in the Chicago area as it fuels addictions, costing the state an estimated $80 million in lost tax revenue each year.
“When they go in to these stores they already know what they’re going to steal and they already know where they’re going to sell it,” said David Williams of the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office.
A Cook County State’s Attorney’s task force is now trying to root-out fencing operations. Police are also relying on former boosters to build their cases.
The River Forest Police Department investigated business owner Yacoub Khalifeh by documenting a so-called “fence-in-progress” on hidden camera video in 2014.
An informant, unrelated to the ex-booster mentioned earlier, and an undercover police officer walked into Khalifeh’s store with $1,200 worth of razors and heartburn medicine. Police said Khalifeh handed the informant $160 for the loot, which were actually items donated by a retailer to help investigators crack down on fencing.
“We’ve seen that these groups have laundered millions and millions of dollars overseas,” Williams said. “Some of them have been connected to supporting terrorist groups or other international crime groups.”
Police charged Khalifeh with organizing a financial crime enterprise. He pleaded guilty and is now serving four years in prison. Police said his store remains closed.
In April, River Forest investigators took the lead in a raid that they said recovered about $20,000 in fenced items from the JJ Food Mart in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood. The city shut down the store. The two arrested owners pleaded not guilty and are due back in court later this summer.
The variety of fenced products can be mind-boggling.
For example, Walgreens has recovered items such as teeth whitening strips, cold medicine, soap, chewing gum and insect repellant, among others.
Jerry Biggs runs the Walgreens organized crime prevention division and showed NBC 5 Investigates a box of seemingly new medicine that had been recovered.
“The box is nice and sealed and it’s all cleaned up and there’s no markings of what retailer it may have came from,” Biggs said.
Walgreens said the recovered fenced items cannot be re-sold. Biggs said some items will get donated while most items get destroyed.