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Loads of Tide thieves clean up nationwide

From Maryland to California, Tide detergent is becoming liquid gold to criminals, who are stealing the bright orange bottles and using them as a form of currency on the streets. KNBC-TV's Robert Kovacik reports.

At $15 a pop for Tide in the 100 fluid ounce container, it's not surprising thieves across the country are scrubbing store shelves clean of the laundry detergent.

Earlier this month, a Tide robber from St. Paul stole $25,000 worth of the detergent and was sentenced to 90 days in jail and five years probation, according to a story in the Pioneer Press.

And a Maryland supermarket surveillance camera caught a suspect loading his car with 15 to 20 bottles of Tide, hauling them away, and then an accomplice selling the detergent to a nail salon. The footage was aired on an NBC affiliate in Los Angeles, which reported that national retailers such as CVS were taking extra security measures to keep “Tide tied down.”

And it’s not just Tide, the NBC story found. A spokesperson for Ralphs Grocery Stores, a California supermarket chain, said the thieves are also stealing Red Bull and shampoo.

It’s not surprising that thieves are expanding their target beyond cars and jewelry these days. The cost of many consumer goods has been steadily escalating in recent years.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, prices for household cleaning products spiked 4.8 percent in 2009, the highest percentage increase since 2002; and prices have only trailed off slightly since.

Out of the entire retail industry, grocery stores and supermarkets have been the hardest hit by theft in recent years, said Joseph LaRocca, senior advisor/asset protection with the National Retail Federation. In 2001, the grocery and supermarket segment reported 1.42 percent of its merchandise was stolen annually. In 2010, the sector reported losing 3.12 percent of its products. 

Higher prices can lead some consumers to buy such products via illegal means, creating a market for stolen goods, said Michael Garry, technology and operations editor for Supermarket News.

For the past five years, organized retail crime rings have been on the rise in the supermarket industry, he explained. They steal from mass merchants and resell the goods at big discounts on the Internet, at flea markets, and on street corners. “It’s a billion dollar black market out there.”

Some law enforcement officials have tied the uptick in Tide thefts to the drug trade. One story by The Daily on Monday quoted Oregon police who said drug addicts were "feeding their habit" with the proceeds.

Big chains such as Safeway and Target, Supermarket News' Garry said, now have dedicated staff that deal with the issue and work with law enforcement in an effort to crack the rings. Big cases have been solved in Florida and Maryland, he added, where merchandise worth millions of dollars was recovered.

The products the rings go after have traditionally included infant formula, razor blades, over the counter medicines, electric toothbrushes and batteries. But Tide is new to the rip-off roster. 

No one at Procter & Gamble, the makers of Tide, could be immediately reached to comment on the rash of Tide thefts. A story in The Consumerist quoted a company spokesperson as saying, "We don't have any insight as to why the phenomenon is happening, but it is certainly unfortunate."