They hire small-time crooks to fill orders of goods — high-end clothing, purses, food — that they want stolen from retailers.

They pay the low-level thieves with cash, usually 30 cents on the dollar, or with drugs. Teams of shoplifters raid stores during the day, distracting staff, grabbing jackets worth maybe $3,000 and escaping undetected, the items concealed in bags rigged to evade censors.

Once their underlings have stolen enough loot over a period of days or months, the organized retail crime rings approach a middleman, a fence, to sell the products. It could be through online auction sites, including eBay and Kijiji, or some other means, such as shipping the goods to other jurisdictions for sale.

Calgary police have identified "several pockets" of offenders running at different levels of organized retail crime over the past two years.

Officers on Wednesday unveiled the seizure of nearly $230,000 worth of high-end clothing, wallets, purses, coats, sunglasses and baby items stolen from retailers in the Calgary area and recovered in a Vancouver apartment.

Police believe the 1,570 items were stolen by organized retail crime offenders. They’re part of a troubling brand of criminal who is constantly knocking off stores, said Const. Lara Sampson, with the Calgary Police Service’s retail industry crime initiative. Two Vancouver women, aged 45 and 53, were arrested for being in possession of stolen property worth more than $5,000. They have since been released, pending further investigation.

Heaps of stolen property were on display at police headquarters Wednesday afternoon. The most expensive item seized was a Gucci jacket that retails for $3,770.

Retail theft costs Canadian businesses an estimated $4 billion annually, according to the Retail Council of Canada. It has a "huge impact" on the industry and it also affects consumers because the losses "trickle down to the costs of other goods," said Lanny McInnes, director of the retail council’s Prairies office.

Police and retailers share data on retail theft through a computer database, which alerts all parties when organized crime rings are operating, McInnes said.

"It is a big problem," he said, "but the profile of the issue is raised, certainly, when law enforcement makes a significant bust like this one."

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