Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Noir Side of Perfume

People love perfume for many reasons; thieves love it for three: it’s small, valuable, and untraceable.

Perfume attracts all manner of criminals. There are low level grab-and-go types, like the trio who snatched some testers from a fragrance counter in Moultrie, Georgia and fled, dropping a couple of bottles on the way. When caught, they turned out to be armed and convicted felons.

In some cases there’s a whiff of desperation. According to the local crime blotter in Brookfield, Wisconsin, a
51-year-old Milwaukee man was arrested for theft after he took perfume from Boston Store, 15875 W. Bluemound Road, at 10:57 a.m. Dec. 7. He also was arrested for possession of drug paraphernalia after police found a metal pipe and steel wool during a search.
Who knows what spurred a 34-year veteran of the New Orleans Police Department to pocket a bottle of fragrance in the J.C. Penney store at the Metairie Mall last November? Or why the couple in Cape Coral, Florida decided they needed perfume so badly that the guy stuffed a $40 bottle into his pants in a WalMart while his lady friend played lookout?

And what can you say about the women in Beaverton, Oregon who had three children stand lookout in a department store while they lifted mascara and some Paris Hilton fragrances?

’Fume-lifting can get violent. When a security guard at a Sears store near Harrisburg, PA tried to stop a woman from stealing some perfume, she bit him and fled. Over near Pittsburgh a guy shoplifted $1,100 worth of fragrance at a mall and hopped into a getaway car driven by his girlfriend and her 17-year-old son. Police gave chase and the outlaws crashed. (Perfume theft seems to be endemic in Pennsylvania. This month $676 worth was lifted from the Berkshire Mall in Wyomissing.)

Scent-snatching gets to be a habit for some people. One guy is targeting a Walgreens in the Chicago suburb of Arlington Heights. The first time he made off with $2,000 worth of product; the second time he snared only $200 worth.

Then there’s the six foot tall, bearded and bespectacled guy in Windsor, Ontario who helped himself to four bottles each of Chanel 5 and Coco and got away clean. When he returned two days later he was recognized as he put two more bottles in his shopping cart. He fled but was tracked down and arrested by Ontario Provincial Police.

The next step up on the criminal food chain are the professional shoplifters like the pair of New York women who traveled repeatedly to Kittery, Maine where they were accused of stealing $17,000 worth of product from the Swarovski Crystal store and multiple bottles of cologne from the Cosmetics Company. They were seen tossing a bottle from their car and police found metal-lined “thermal bags”—used to defeat a store’s anti-theft devices—in their car.

Professional perfume thieves often work in teams. Last July, in Galway District Court in Ireland, a 38-year-old woman pleaded guilty to theft. Here’s Martina Nee’s account from the Galway Advertiser:
Inspector Mick Coppinger told the court that the defendant entered [high end department store] Brown Thomas with three other females which included her 12-year-old daughter and 19-year-old daughter-in-law. He said that together they set up what is known as a “distraction type situation” and that the defendant had acted as a “look out”. They made off with 15 bottles of perfume which had a total value of €970.

When the Romanian national was arrested and questioned she recovered two bottles of perfume but the other items had been sold on.
In one case, ’fume-lifting literally became a team sport when a bunch of professional soccer players were snared at a Ben-Gurion Airport duty free store.

The airplane get-away makes duty free shops a tempting target. In December, an Australian tourist couple was busted for lifting three bottles of perfume from the duty free in the departure lounge at Phuket airport in Thailand. The guy was released on bail but his “fiancée” was held in juvenile custody because she’s only 16 . . .

(The chain of Thai duty free shops in question is rumored to be running an interesting counter-scam in which they falsely accuse customers of shoplifting and then settle for a cash payment to not press charges.)

Still further up the food chain are thieves who brazenly make off with piles of merchandise. Last September, in broad daylight, somebody took two dozen bottles of Emporio Armani from Boots the Chemist in Cockermouth, England.

In Southern California this January, thieves hit Victoria’s Secret in the Brea Mall (on 90 just off the 57). They took 200 pairs ($3,200 worth) of an item called the Lacy Panty. (Ummm, lacy panties . . .) Four days later someone swiped 39 bottles of perfume and lotion (worth $1,931) from the same store. In each case the thieves just cleared off an entire display table.

At the pinnacle of the perfume theft food chain are gangs who target wholesale warehouses. Although last month’s million dollar heist in the New Jersey Meadowlands town of Carlstadt was large, it’s by no means the largest. 
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 taken from a Jersey City cargo terminal.
In the past ten years similar robberies have taken place in South Hackensack ($500,000), Newark ($750,000) and Edison ($1,000,000). 

What the hell’s going on? Back in 2002, reporter Peter Pochna laid it all out in an excellent story in the Baltimore Sun:
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.”
Joan Goodchild, Senior Editor at CSO magazine, reports on a worldwide survey of retailers that found shrink (i.e., stock that is lost, damaged or stolen) increased in 2009:
The increase in shrink was felt all over. All except three countries experienced an increase in shrinkage. Average shrinkage rates increased most in North America (+8.1 percent) and in Middle East/Africa (+7.5 percent) and were strongly influenced by a large increase in shoplifting, the report said. 

CRR said significant increases in shrink rates occurred in the U.S. (where shrink rose by +8.8% to reach 1.61% of retail sales). However, the highest increases in shrink rates were experienced in Slovakia (+9.8%) and South Africa (8.2%). 

Various types of retail business were impacted by shrink in 2009. The highest shrink rates were in apparel, clothing and fashion and accessories and the auto parts, hardware and building materials industry. Cosmetics, perfume, beauty supply and pharmacy-related business were third on the list. The lowest rates were in liquor, wine, beer/off-license retail establishments.

What can be done? Retailers are turning to counter-surveillance methods, such as devices that scan for the metal-lined “booster bags” used by thieves to avoid theft-detectors. Others have tried GPS locators placed in random cartons of perfume. Someone patented an anti-theft device for perfume testers. While this may deter the impulse shoplifter, it won’t have much impact on smarter thieves who are after product still in its original packaging.

The creation and marketing of fine fragrance is the apex of glamour but theft and diversion of product creates an astoundingly large and seedy underworld.

[Thanks to commenter and fragrance blogger BitterGrace for posing the question that inspired this post.]


BitterGrace said...

Thanks, Avery. That was all pretty fascinating, in a seamy sort of way. Helps confirm suspicions about some of those NIB bottles on ebay. I am mystified by something in the Thai story:

"Because the alleged crime took place at night, they will face more serious penalties than for daylight shoplifting if convicted."


Avery Gilbert said...


Outside legit channels the sleaze potential skyrockets. BTW the crime blotter stories I used in the post were mostly within the past year or so. Tip of the iceberg.

Other than the Baltimore Sun piece from 8 years ago, there's little followup on the web about the big heists. Imagine gangs stealing two or three Maseratis at a time from a dealer. It would be big news. Why the cone of silence?

In comments to the Thai story the site editor confirms that night-time crimes carry heavier penalties. Odd.

~x~ said...

i am a horrible person because my first thought is "i should buy perfume in chinatown if it's real"...
going to hell = me

Avery Gilbert said...


I disagree. You would be making a rational economic decision.

Pass me one of those tax-free tribal store Winstons, will you?

+ Q Perfume Blog said...

Sniffer - is a device used to track explosives and chemical compounds - they can be used to trace perfume too. Easy solution, works well.