The City by the Bay has a reputation for shopping and dining, but what the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit found for sale at the corner of Seventh Street and Market in San Francisco gives new meaning to “steal of a deal.”
Store owners and retail crime investigators say shoplifters are growing more aggressive and brazen, putting public health and safety at risk. Despite a daily police presence, our hidden cameras captured buyers and sellers doing brisk business.
Within moments of arriving at the black market in front of the Carl's Jr. on Market, sellers approached an undercover NBC Bay Area producer to ask what he wanted to buy. The hot spot is just half a block from the Orpheum theater showing "Hamilton," and if you stopped to observe, you would quickly see sellers offering deep discounts on everything from detergent and deodorant to New York steaks, oxtail and frozen ground turkey.
“This one in the store is $30. I’ll give it to you, $10. I just pulled it out 10 minutes ago. Make me an offer,” said one seller referring to several packages of red meat he later set on the ground near the steps leading down to the BART station.
Another seller enthusiastically offered a package of tri-tip tucked under his armpit, hidden inside his leather jacket, “This [expletive] is Kentucky bourbon tri-tip. Come on man. You [expletive] marinate it in Kentucky bourbon. This is as good as it gets right here.”
One man hawked canned seafood from Safeway from a plastic garbage bag, "Crab meat bruh. They’re like $5 a can, I want $1 a can. Just $1. I got Spam too." He sold his box of frozen Safeway Select chocolate eclairs just a few minutes later to another black market regular, who opened the box, sharing the delicate desserts with other regulars on the corner.
The makeshift market even has a nickname, “496 Market” because 496 is the California penal code for receiving stolen goods.
“It’s really a low risk, high reward crime,” loss prevention investigator Joe LaRocca said. The former vice president of the National Retail Federation has spent more than 20 years advising major companies, including Disney, on how to combat organized retail crime.
LaRocca said he's seen many instances of food sold on the street that ended back up on store shelves and even in restaurants, served to unsuspecting customers.
"When things like baby formula, over-the-counter drugs, and meat are not maintained in a refrigerated or sanitary condition, disease can break out, the food might spoil, and if children are eating it, it puts vulnerable people at risk because it is just not safe.”
LaRocca said in the past several years, his organization has tracked a rise in violence associated with theft.
“Customers are frequently caught in the middle of these aggressive crimes. People are pushed out the door, they’re run over, hit by vehicles. We’ve seen the high-speed pursuits in California; when you hear they were initiated at some retail store or parking lot, sometimes these are organized retail crime suspects trying to get away,” LaRocca said.
- WATCH THIS VIDEO OF A WOMAN DETERMINED NOT TO PART WITH HER CHIPS AND JUICE WHEN CONFRONTED BY SECURITY.
“The shoplifters we catch at the door, they’re going to fight you for it. They feel it’s theirs once they pass that threshold,” Grocery Outlet store owner Eric Liitschwager said.
The former private security contractor turned grocery retailer has scuffled with shoplifters himself, and recently, a petty theft turned into a violent assault at his newly opened store on Van Ness.
“One of my guys was stabbed by a shoplifter about five times in the hand and the arm,” Liitschwager said. “For the first time, I’ve decided to go with an armed guard. They have arrest authority, body cameras and they’re fully armed."
UNDETERRED BY POLICE PRESENCE
Despite a daily police presence of uniformed officers walking the block and black and white patrol cars cruising on the sidewalk, the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit observed little interruption to the illicit business conducted on Market Street.
Law enforcement's apparent frustration at the brazen black market operating in plain sight bubbled to the surface when a plain clothes San Francisco police officer revealed his badge and walked through a crowd asking, "You know why people steal stuff? Because people like you come out here and buy their [expletive] all day."
The officer continued, "Wait until we get INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) involved in here too. It's going to be awesome. We're going to ship everybody back to their home country." Five minutes after dispersing, buyers and sellers reconvened.
NBC Bay Area requested an interview with the San Francisco police department to ask about the challenges of cracking down on this crime, and to question the actions of the officer who announced INS would be shipping people "back to their home country." Department spokesman Sgt. Michael Andraychak declined, saying the officers were "too busy."
In an email, the agency acknowledged the area “is known as a place where stolen goods may be sold...SFPD has been conducting plain clothes operations in the area for several months.”
After initially denying any SFPD officers were out on the corner, Andraychak requested video showing the officer recorded by NBC Bay Area, alarmed that an officer in one of the country's staunchest sanctuary cities was recorded referring to the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
“We'd like to see what was said and by whom so we can evaluate the situation to determine if the person speaking is an SFPD member and, if so, if any violation of Department policies took place. SFPD officers do not enforce immigration laws.”
Meanwhile, Grocery Outlet's Liitschwager said his store suffers losses of $300 to $1,000 a day from thieves. That loss means he has less money to pay benefits for employees that range from orthodontic work for a clerk’s kids, or funeral costs for a staffer who lost his mother. Liitschwager said he’s also paid bills for a cashier whose husband underwent open heart surgery.
“We get to do those things. It’s something that keeps us bound together as a team,” explaining that his employees take it personally when people steal. “This is our home. We spend so many hours here; don’t come here and do that.”
SFPD Statement Regarding Retail Crime at 7th Street and Market
SFPD Investigators pursue leads and develop evidence with the goal of identifying suspects and making arrests.
There have been instances in which the suspects used force or weapons on store employees to complete retail theft. The use of force or fear elevates theft to robbery. These types of crimes have been occurring for several years now with the “Rainbow Crew” being the most widely known in the Bay Area.
When crimes like this occur, we encourage store employees and customers to be good witnesses and to note as much detail about the suspects (including any get-away car) as possible and to capture photo or video evidence on their smart phones.
Our most successful investigations are those in which retailers promptly call 911 to report the thefts and provide witness statements, surveillance video, inventory records of stolen merchandise, etc. to responding officers. Successful prosecutions also depend upon victims and witnesses being willing to testify in court. We need victims (retailers) to call the police, file reports and cooperate with investigators.
Investigators work up cases and utilize email and Crime Alert Bulletins to share information throughout the Department (ie: surveillance video, still photos, vehicle descriptions, etc.) and with allied agencies when appropriate. The SFPD Investigations Bureau also holds regular conference calls to share information on significant crimes and trends occurring in their areas.
Once investigators obtain photos of suspects, photographic lineups are shown to victims and witnesses. When witnesses and victims positively ID suspects, inspectors prepare arrest and search warrants which, upon approval of a judge, are served. Completed investigations are then turned over to the DA's Office for prosecution.
The Department has made arrests in several such incidents (“Rainbow Crew” for example).
The area of 7th /Market Street is known as a place where stolen goods may be sold. Officers assigned to Tenderloin Station, the Mid-Market Foot Beat Unit and other specialized units patrol the area on a regular basis. Uniformed officers make arrests of persons possessing or selling stolen property at 7th / Market and United Nations Plaza. We believe there is an organized group running a modern day fencing operation that moves property in and out of the UN Plaza on a regular basis. We believe that some of the stolen items are being moved out of the San Francisco area. The SFPD has been conducting plain clothes operations in the area for several months.
We also know that events such as flea markets and swap meets held in neighboring jurisdictions also attract persons selling stolen items.
As for the video of undercover officers that your producer mentioned, I have not been able to identify any SFPD operations in that area on or around the date you provided. I am told that corporate loss prevention agencies sometimes conduct surveillance in the area. In either event, it might be best if you do not air or publish any video depicting undercover officers or agents."