TAMPA — Using phony barcode stickers and counterfeit receipts, five people stole merchandise from Wal-Mart stores from Florida to Texas and conned the retail giant out of more than $100,000 in bogus refunds, authorities say.

The group built on common forms of organized retail theft – known as "UPC switching" – involving fake universal product codes to bring a new level of sophistication to theft by cracking the stores’ receipt codes and forging receipts to get cash refunds, experts say.

"My fear on this one is that it’s going to grow legs unless changes are made within the stores that utilize this type of coding and ... their return policy," said John Joyce, special agent in charge of the Tampa office of the Secret Service, which investigated the case.

"This one is a bit more shrewd and creative than I’ve seen and heard about," said Rich Mellor, senior adviser for asset protection for the National Retail Federation. Wal-Mart spokeswoman Dianna Gee said the group employed tactics she has not seen before. She said the company is always looking for ways to prevent theft and would investigate any changes needed to combat the methods in this case.

According to the criminal complaint and the Secret Service, this is how the theft worked:

The conspirators would hone in on items that were generally similar but often had much different prices – things like extension cords, water filters, golf balls and lawn chemicals. They would buy a high-priced extension cord, for example, and buy or steal numerous lower-priced extension cords. Then they’d copy the high-priced barcode and make stickers to cover the barcodes of the cheaper extension cords.

Other types of organized fraud rings have put phony barcodes over expensive items and bought the items cheaply, then sold them at a higher price than they paid, but for less than the items sold for in stores. But because the crooks would have to sell the items at a reduced price, the financial gain was limited. And, Mellor said, some major online auction sites started cracking down on sales of goods suspected to be stolen.

So the fraud rings started returning the items to the stores without receipts for store credit on gift cards. They would then sell the gift cards at a discount.

This group, authorities say, figured out how to forge receipts to make it appear they had paid full-price in cash for the expensive items. They even replicated the code numbers on the bottom of the receipts to make the transactions look legitimate and either obtained or forged Wal-Mart-specific receipt paper with emblems on the back. The receipts and phony UPC codes enabled the conspirators to "return" the lower-priced items for higher refunds.

Part of the genius of the operation, Joyce said, was the thieves picked items that weren’t attention-getters; they didn’t try to steal big-screen televisions or computers, for example. And the items were things that most people who weren’t familiar with them couldn’t quickly distinguish between expensive and inexpensive versions.

"If you’re a golfer, you’d know a Titleist Pro V 1 goes for $45 for a dozen; a Top Flight goes for about $8 to $10 for a dozen balls," Joyce said. "So this is what they would do where they would get a huge return on their investment. And they were smart in one way where they weren’t greedy where they bought the huge-ticket items. But they were greedy where they hit multiple stores. … Instead of doing it slowly, they hit a lot" of stores in a short period of time.

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