Legislation Addressing Retail Theft And Its Link To Tennessee’s Opioid Crisis Advances In State Senate

Friday, February 23, 2018

A  bill which aims to cut off the flow of funds used in the purchase of illegal drugs was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee this week as legislation addressing Tennessee’s opioid crisis moves front and center in the Tennessee General Assembly.  Senate Bill 1717, sponsored by Senator Richard Briggs (R-Knoxville), addresses the use of gift cards obtained through retail theft which has been heavily linked to the purchase of opiates, said officials. 

The proposal follows a new law passed by the General Assembly last year defining organized retail crime and creating two new theft offenses for the purpose of prosecuting individuals who return stolen merchandise to receive gift cards, money or store credit.  

“You have one team that will go into a store and shoplift the goods,” said Senator Briggs.  “A second team will take them back without a receipt and get the value of the goods on a store gift card, with the sales tax that was never collected added.  The cards are then taken to various pawn shops or gift card retailers where they can be sold at a discount.  The money is then used to buy drugs illegally.”  

It is estimated that Tennessee loses over $14 million in sales tax dollars and retailers lose over $200 million each year related to return fraud.  The National Retail Federation has estimates the loss at $12 to $15 billion nationwide, with almost all being related to illicit drug trade.  

From April to June of last year, 98 overdose cases resulting in death or hospitalization were linked to individuals involved in retail theft.  Investigative reports, like one done by CNBC entitled Gift Card Crime Fueling Opioid Addiction across the U.S., continue to lend validity to the strong connection of the use of gift cards obtained through retail theft and illegal drugs.  In addition to an interview with Senator Briggs, the report took a firsthand look at the problem with the Shelby County Sheriff’s Area Law Enforcement and Retailers Team (A.L.E.R.T). 

Officials said the bill proposed this year would give local law enforcement the tools they need to make sure businesses comply with the law passed in 2017 by: 

Enhancing penalties for those convicted of Organized Retail Crime; 

Establishing penalties for businesses that do not report; 

Clearly stating what information is to be collected; and, 

Making all identifying information confidential, to be used only by the state and law enforcement. 

Local law enforcement would decide how to notify businesses affected and what method they should use to report the data. 

“The database is the key,” added Senator Briggs.  “Retailers can cancel cards as soon as alerted and it allows us to identify stolen sales tax dollars.  It also sends real time notifications to law enforcement to investigate suspicious transactions.   This will help us link suspects to organized crime rings so we can stop this destructive and deadly cycle of retail theft and opioid abuse.”

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