Tide thefts skyrocket as product becomes bartering tool for drug users

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It’s being coined as a “grime wave.” Tide thefts have skyrocketed in recent months, according to new reports, as the product is now seen as the perfect bartering tender for illegal transactions by drug users and other criminals. The popular laundry detergent in the bright orange packaging has suddenly become “liquid gold,” because its relatively high cost and ubiquitous desirability make it attractive for resale on the black market.

Tide, America’s most popular brand of laundry soap, doesn’t spoil, is instantly recognizable — and everyone needs to do their laundry. For these reasons, it’s “coinage” as black market currency is high, as a stolen bottle can be “flipped” for $5 – $10 a bottle. As a result, Tide, which can retail for $20 per unit, is now being targeted for organized theft at drug stores and supermarkets.

“It’s the item to steal,” Detective Larry Patterson, a Somerset, Ky. police detective told one news outlet. Yet he added, “There’s no serial numbers and it’s impossible to track,” regarding the media’s portrayal of this crime wave, which is based completely on colorful anecdotes.

Stories have been pouring in from across the country of crooks making off with thousands of dollars worth of Tide, and engaging in months of heists before capture. One St. Paul, Minn. man confessed to filching $6,000 of the sudsy substance from a single Walmart before being sentenced to 90 days in jail.

Ironically, small sentences might be encouraging this “tidal wave” of crime. The relatively low-risk act of Tide-swiping has few dangers or repercussions. National chains such as CVS have attempted to electronically tag the products as a deterrent to no avail. Robbers just run or drive away carrying as many bottles as possible — sometimes working in teams — and remove the tags later.

One CVS employee said of Tide-specific shoplifting: “It’s a hot item! It’s gotten out of hand. They usually take maybe four, whatever they can carry out the door. We have to fight for that. It’s rough!”

“They’re taking dozens off the shelf, putting it into their cart, and running out the front door,” an Indiana Kroger operator told a local TV station of similar acts.

Organized theft has been on the rise, as the flat economy has created a consumer and retail class willing to buy stolen goods at cut rate prices. The National Retail Federation reports that theft of basic staples for intentional bartering or resale — such as razor blades and over-the-counter medication — cost stores $3.53 billion in 2010.

Theft of over-the-counter medication in recent years has been linked to the use of stolen nasal decongestants for making the drug methamphetamine — or crystal meth. By contrast, the motivation for large-scale Tide filching is a population hungry to acquire the detergent for its intended use.

Some Tide snatchers find it profitable to resell the good themselves at steep discounts outside laundromats directly to consumers. Unscrupulous, small retailers like corner stores also benefit from stocking up on stolen Tide for much less than a legitimate buy.

Even drug dealers prefer the trusted clothes cleaner as a form of payment, as one Maryland police department has learned. A Prince George’s County department quoted a dealer telling an informant, “I’m out of marijuana right now, but when I get re-upped I’ll hook you up if you can get me 15 bottles of Tide,” according to the Associated Press.

Experts believe dealers sell their viscous booty to stores for a margin that enhances the profit garnered over money earned through traditional drug transactions.

Proctor & Gamble, the parent company of Tide, is baffled by these phenomena. In an emailed statement to the press, a spokesperson related, “We don’t have any insight as to why this has apparently happened, but if so, it is unfortunate.”

Follow Alexis Garrett Stodghill on Twitter at @lexisb