When San Bernardino police detectives would raid houses to search for drugs the past few years, they couldn’t believe what they kept finding.
“The question started coming up, ‘Why are we seeing so much laundry detergent in so many dope houses?’” Sgt. Travis Walker said.
Strange as it may seem, detergent — specifically liquid Tide and Tide Pods — has become a currency on the black market nationwide. It is traded for drugs or sold far below retail prices at open swap meets and clandestine meetings, law enforcement and retail officials say.
Several factors have combined to turn the product into what some are calling “liquid gold”: The Tide brand is the most popular, even though it is the highest priced; detergent is relatively easy to steal and, unlike electronic items with serial numbers, is difficult to trace; and shoplifting is a relatively low-risk operation compared to other crimes to make a quick buck.
Why is Tide so popular with thieves?
“People refer to it comically like, ‘They’re stealing laundry detergent?’” said Richard Mellor, vice president of loss prevention for the National Retail Federation.
But merchants aren’t laughing.
Walker said one Inland supermarket chain, which he declined to identify, reported each store suffering four to six thefts of Tide per week, with each loss valued at $100 to $400.
The Tide thefts are part of what merchants have told the National Retail Federation is an increase in organized groups stealing for resale many products that people use every day: razors, beauty supplies, allergy medicine.
The Inland Empire Organized Retail Crime Association was created by local retailers, police and prosecutors in 2011 to share information on crime trends and suspect descriptions.
The National Retail Federation lists laundry detergent only behind baby formula as the most-stolen product.
“It’s a hot commodity on the streets,” Riverside police Lt. Dan Hoxmeier said.
And no, the ingredients are not broken down to make drugs, as with some cold medicines that are frequently stolen. People actually buy the stolen Tide to wash clothes.
“Everyone uses laundry detergent,” Mellor said.
A 2009 survey listed Procter & Gamble’s Tide, along with Kraft and Coca-Cola, as the three brands that consumers would never give up no matter how badly the economy tanked.
That loyalty comes at a cost: In a recent check at a Stater Bros. market in Riverside, a 150-ounce bottle of Tide was priced at $17.97, $3 more than the same amount of Gain and $7.20 more than a 150-ounce bottle of All.
Those Tide bottles can be exchanged for $5 cash or $10 worth of marijuana or crack cocaine, according to New York Magazine’s “Suds for Drugs” article, which said the product has received the nickname “liquid gold.”
Sundar Raman, the marketing director of P&G’s North American fabric-care division, told the magazine, “It’s unfortunate that people are stealing Tide, and I don’t think it’s appropriate at all, but the one thing it reminds me of is that the value of the brand has stayed consistent.”
Procter & Gamble officials did not return two phone messages seeking comment.
The scope of the problem is far beyond a single person slipping a bottle or bag of Tide under his arm and sneaking out of a supermarket, big-box store or pharmacy, and it is not limited to Tide.
Rings of thieves cost businesses $30 billion annually, the National Retail Federation estimates.
“This is not shoplifting we’re talking about,” Mellor said in a phone interview from Washington, D.C. “It’s a criminal enterprise to make a significant profit.”
Hoxmeier said a crew will often have three people: a target, lookout and mule. The target identifies the product to be stolen. The lookout makes sure no one is watching and loads the cart, with Tetris-like precision, with detergent, baby formula, razor blades, energy drinks, allergy medicine and beauty products. Sometimes they’ll conceal the bounty with blankets and even children, Hoxmeier said.
The mule will then push the cart right out of the store.
Once obtained, the products often go to middlemen who might have furnished the thieves with shopping lists.
Riverside police Detective Dave Riedeman said some people sell the stolen items out of their homes to neighbors who learn of their availability through word of mouth.
Riedeman’s partner, Detective Lori Blaszak, said stolen women’s beauty products, expensive in stores, are particularly popular on the black market.
Retailers are fighting back, short of putting Tide under lock and key.
Mellor said some merchants shrink-wrap excess inventory on shelves or otherwise make the bottles difficult to reach. Others attach electronic devices that will activate an alarm if they are not removed at the checkout stand.
Merchants, fierce competitors for the customer dollar, also have found success by working together. They compare notes and surveillance photos on who has been stealing and when and where, and forward the information to police.
“There is a collaboration like I’ve never seen before. It’s very refreshing,” Mellor said.
Organized retail crime was a hot topic at a National Retail Federation loss-prevention conference in San Diego this month that Mellor organized. He said he was heartened to see 20 law enforcement agencies represented, including some federal agencies and police from as far away as Florida.
Law enforcement also is gaining awareness of the scope of the problem and is committing more resources, Mellor added.
CVS recently approached Riverside police about its theft problem, Riedeman said.
The result was an operation June 4-5 in which 28 Riverside and San Bernardino officers fanned out to 16 locations and made 38 theft arrests, including 13 for felonies.
Riedeman said the most audacious attempted theft was by a woman who loaded up her cart with car batteries and tried to wheel them out the door.
The undercover plan involved 44 retail employees at CVS, Food 4 Less, Ralphs, Rite Aid, Sam’s Club, Stater Bros., Target, Toys R Us and Walmart stores. A Stater Bros. spokesman declined to discuss thefts from the markets. CVS did not return a call seeking comment.
This was the first such operation for Riverside police, Blaszak said.
“Usually we’re just coming in from behind. Part of the goal is to be proactive,” she said.
The big prize was not the thieves themselves, but the identity of those, known as fences, who would have received the stolen goods, Riedeman said.
“We’re going to continue to do operations like this,” Riedeman added. “Hopefully the same way the word got out that you can go out and steal whatever you want, we want to make it so you’re not so comfortable that you can go out and steal.”