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The men are accused of being part of a group that stole merchandise then returned it for money.
Thursday, September 12, 2013
Two men were in court Wednesday on allegations they collected more than $80,000 apiece through a conspiracy involving fraudulent merchandise returns at Lowe’s Home Improvement stores in Virginia over three years.
The case could grow larger still.
“Total loss amount of this fraud is up to a million dollars,” Charlene Day, assistant U.S. attorney, told Judge Robert Ballou on Wednesday at a hearing in federal court in Roanoke for defendants Nathan Jerome Stinson and Alfonzo Jermaine Christian.
Stinson, 36, of Charlotte, N.C., and Christian, 35, whose hometown was not provided, did not enter pleas to charges of conspiracy, using false identification and wire fraud. They were returned to custody pending further proceedings.
Authorities believe a group of people stole merchandise and then returned it for cash or cash cards using fraudulent identification, according to Day and an affidavit accompanying criminal charges against Stinson and Christian. Day said prosecutors are gearing up to seek multiple grand jury indictments. She declined to give the total number of indictments expected but said authorities believe the crimes occurred in five or six states.
In court, Day termed some members of the group as “returners” and others as “boosters.” The latter term, according to a Congressional Research Service report on organized retail crime, refers to a professional shoplifter who steals goods and then sells or transfers the items to others.
Authorities made key arrests last spring with help from Lowe’s, the affidavit said.
A loss prevention officer at the Bonsack Lowe’s grew suspicious and contacted Roanoke County police after determining that a group of people the officer believed were from the Charlotte region had processed multiple refund transactions at the store, the affidavit said.
The store limits customers to three merchandise returns within 90 days and keeps track using state identification cards that customers must present. But the loss prevention officer determined that group members had bypassed the limit by presenting multiple ID cards, the affidavit said, adding that the officer believed they were fake or altered.
The afternoon of April 18, the loss prevention officer, using undisclosed tracking methods, notified authorities that the group was active and had stopped at stores in South Boston, Farmville, Lynchburg and Bedford, the affidavit said.
As was their pattern, group members “would start in North Carolina and make their way up to Virginia, stopping at various Lowe’s stores where they would return merchandise,” the affidavit said. Using a description of clothing provided by Bedford store personnel, police apprehended Stinson and Christian in the store after they tried to run off and apprehended a third person waiting in a car near the store, the affidavit said.
Officers found $30,000 worth of stolen Lowe’s merchandise in the car, among other items seized during the takedown, the affidavit said. Cash cards from both Lowe’s and Home Depot also were recovered. Lowe’s gave authorities evidence from its computers that Stinson and Christian were associated with more than 300 refunds each totaling $82,699 and $81,531, respectively, the affidavit said.
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