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California attorney general announces steps against 'smash and grab' robberies

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Organized groups of shoplifters have attacked a Nordstrom, a CVS and a Louis Vuitton store in cities across California in recent weeks. Smaller shops have been targeted, too, like Code 1 Jewelry kiosk in South Bay. Catherine Kim's family owns the business. Her mother helps operate the store and called Catherine during the robbery.

CATHERINE KIM: She, like, literally couldn't speak. She was just kind of, like, making noises. And then she ended up, like, just hanging up on me because I think she was so shocked at what had just happened.

SHAPIRO: The business lost about $250,000 worth of goods.

KIM: We're a very, very small, family-owned business. It's literally just my mom and my dad. And for them to, like, have such a huge setback like this - it's very discouraging.

SHAPIRO: California's attorney general, Rob Bonta, joins us now.

Welcome.

ROB BONTA: Thank you for having me - honored to be with you.

SHAPIRO: You've said that some of these smash-and-grab attacks are being planned by organized crime rings and that they're organizing them by text and social media. What evidence do you have about who exactly is behind this?

BONTA: The evidence we have demonstrates that these are organized retail crimes. It is multiple individuals planning, strategizing, targeting a store or stores and then implementing that plan and then taking the proceeds that they've stolen and reselling them on secondary marketplaces to make a profit. And we've had multiple cases at different levels of the criminal justice process from sentencing, arraignment, arrest. And we are seeing a lot of the same patterns of, as you say, communicating using social media platforms and going after this retail theft in an organized way to make a profit.

SHAPIRO: Given that they are coordinating on social media and, as you say, selling for profit on secondary marketplaces, how big of a role do websites and tech companies have to play in fighting this?

BONTA: I think they have an important role, and we certainly are taking an all-of-the-above approach to address what we know is unacceptable and awful. It puts at risk employees and members of the public. And so certainly we want to prevent when we can through our investigation into social media platforms and communication and interrupt crime before it happens if we can do that. We want to hold folks accountable and arrest them on the scene when we can and conduct an investigation afterwards as well.

But if we can have our online marketplaces really make more strict the seller verification so that there is not a secondary marketplace for the resale of these stolen goods for profit, it can really freeze out the secondary market and take the incentive out of this crime in the first place. Something similar to this is the kill switch for iPhones. When the kill switch was used and it took the value out of the resale of stolen iPhones, it really reduced thefts of iPhones as well.

SHAPIRO: You also mentioned on-scene arrests. And there has been some discussion about California's Proposition 47, which makes it harder to bring felony charges for theft. No felony charges can be brought unless the merchandise is worth more than $950. Police say that provides little incentive to arrest people for shoplifting. Is that an obstacle?

BONTA: It is not. You know, this is not shoplifting. This is not petty theft. This is not teens swiping candy from a store. This is organized criminal activity where multiple individuals, up to 80 at times, are acting in concert to steal the goods. When the acting is in concert, then you aggregate the value of all goods stolen. And in one incident, it was over a million dollars of stolen goods. So the $950 threshold is way, way back in the rearview mirror.

SHAPIRO: And if you've got a crew of 80 people going in all at once, I mean, it must be like swatting at a swarm of mosquitoes. There's no way you can get them all or even a significant number.

BONTA: It's hard to catch everyone. We do use the video, and it's clear that what is being done is being done in concert and is acting in an organized way. So that's why the investigation after the incident is important to secure additional arrests. And we know that the biggest deterrent to crime is the likelihood of being caught if you commit the crime. So arresting is very important, either on-scene or later on through an investigation.

SHAPIRO: Just briefly, you met with retailers in Los Angeles last week to talk about ways to fight these attacks. What came out of that?

BONTA: Some really important collaborative approaches and ideas around what we can do together. And we all realize this is a shared problem and shared responsibility. It's an organized effort and organized crime, and it requires an organized response. And one of the most important things that came out of it was tighter seller verifications on online marketplaces, including video verification and other verification, to help ensure that there is not a marketplace for these stolen goods.

SHAPIRO: All right. Attorney General Rob Bonta is Attorney General for the state of California.

Thank you very much.

BONTA: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.