When we think of “organized crime,” we tend to picture pudgy, middle-aged men sporting fedoras and ending every sentence with “ya see?” These are the type of criminals dealing in high-level, illegal products: drugs, prostitution, gambling ... Nutella.
As it turns out, there are entire criminal organizations that make bank, stealing seemingly worthless items that the rest of us could easily acquire for just $2 and our last shred of self-respect.
Peanut Butter Cups
In candy shell form, the combination of chocolate and peanut butter is powerful enough to lure scared, otherworldly aliens out of hiding. Even in regular form, they’re so good, people would do just about anything to get their grubby hands on some. Thankfully, peanut butter cups are quite cheap and widely available at any place that sells things to people with money. You know, stores.
But where do these stores get their cups from? You might assume they purchase it directly from Mr. Reese himself, but, in reality, they sometimes get them from the black market. Seriously.
"There's more than one way to steal a Reese's."
Just last year, a group of highly organized thieves created a fake shipping company, printed false IDs, stole an entire trailer stuffed with $10,000 worth of peanut butter cups, and drove it to a warehouse they owned. The plan from there was to hand the sweet, sweet contraband over to a black market distributor who would flip the product to retail stores all over New York. Unfortunately for them, the distributor in question was actually an FBI informant, and their candy-asses were promptly chucked into jail.
But those guys weren’t just street-level thugs with a plan and a sweet tooth, they were members of an honest-to-God Russian crime syndicate. The Enterprise, as they’re known, also deals in the kind of illegal things you’d expect -- like rigging slot machines -- but the opportunity to steal food is just too alluring. For example, the Enterprise were also connected to a dude that stole $200,000 worth of cheese, and he didn’t even eat any himself. That’s a true professional.
The thing is, it's possible that you've unknowingly bought some of this stuff. Those peanut butter cups were likely destined for hundreds of smaller “bodega” stores. There are simply too many to be individually checked by big-time sales reps, and stores can make three to four times as much money as they would slinging legal peanut butter. When grocery store profit margins are already as tight as five to 10 percent, the ability to make a quick buck can often prove too tempting. Besides, any offer involving peanut butter is an offer only a master of zen could refuse.
"You tryin' to bribe me, son? Well ... it worked."
If cleanliness is next to godliness, there sure are a lot of crazy criminals out there trying to atone for their sins with Tide laundry detergent. Or, you know, just trying to trade it for crack. And before you think drug dealers are buying stolen Tide so they can somehow transform it into the world’s freshest LSD, that’s not what they’re after at all. They literally just want to resell laundry detergent like a Wal-Mart employee.
To understand why a bottle of laundry detergent would be worth any amount of cocaine, we need to comprehend just how much Americans freaking love Tide. In a 2009 survey, Americans listed Tide as the third highest brand that they would never give up on, even during a recession. So basically, they’d rather starve than give up smelling like flowers. This puts a premium on Tide, and as we’re learning, if it’s something people want, there’s a black market for it.
"Yo, man. You got any Tide on you? I just need one hit."
Theft can result in 15 years in prison, but low-level shoplifting usually accrues just a small fine and a stern, "Hey, stop that." And although expensive items like smartphones or GPS devices are typically locked up, Tide bottles are sold so frequently, they’re out in the open where anybody could grab them. It’s not like any minimum-wage cashiers want to be remembered as the guy who died while stopping a criminal from stealing laundry detergent, so criminals often face little-to-no resistance. Well, except for some special circumstances ... like the time an Orange County Tide thief got into a high speed chase that concluded with his SUV smashing into an ambulance.
It’s gotten so bad that New York police observed a single Safeway get robbed regularly by crews of over two dozen thieves. They’d just take turns walking in, stealing what they need, and absconding with their crisp bounty (well, technically, still probably just Tide). The thieves even timed their heists with employee shift changes to make it easier on themselves.
But, of course, none of this would be possible without the cooperation of the stores, themselves. The whole point of the Tide black market is that stores profit significantly more by selling stolen detergent than with the wholesale kind. It’s the difference between a $2 and a $15 profit. And unlike some other items on this list, even chain stores will get in on the action from time to time. When items are stolen from a larger store, it’s often easier and faster to replace products through local wholesalers, who may or may not be perfectly legitimate (and some stores don’t care).
"Nah, it's legit, bro. I always wear hoodies to business deals."
So next time you’re buying laundry detergent, just know that you might be helping somebody, somewhere score some smack.
Of all the things a thief may want to make off with, a manhole cover seems like it’d have to be low on the list ... like so low that it's written on the table, below the list. They sit in the middle of the freaking street, they can weigh hundreds of pounds, and they’re unlikely to match anything you’ve bought from Crate and Barrel.
However, China is home to one of the largest scrap metal industries in the entire world. The country’s factories produce so much of the stuff the entire planet uses every day, there’s always a high demand for more and more scrap metal to build with. And you know what’s basically one big slab of metal, practically demanding to be broken down and scrapped? Your stepdad’s Porsche! Also, manhole covers.
"Can you believe someone just left these lying in the street?!"
As you’ve probably guessed, organized crime has flocked to this black market like turtles to sewers. But what’s truly crazy about all this manhole cover stealing business, is how international it is. There are well-organized mafias in Colombia that use modified trucks that can each snag over 30 covers a day. They take their stolen lid, melt it down, and sell the scrap to legitimate businesses in China. Because animals, children and cartoon characters kept falling through the open holes, the Columbian government started replacing the metal covers with plastic ones. The thieves stole those too.
It’s happening in India, in America, in England ... and pretty much anywhere people want to access the sewer system without crawling down a storm drain with Pennywise the Dancing Clown. There’s just too much money to be made, and too few protections in place to thwart would-be thieves.
It’s even a problem in China, itself. In Bejing, alone, it’s estimated that some 240,000 manholes were stolen just in 2004. To stem the tide of theft, exasperated officials have even begun experimenting with tagging manhole covers with GPS trackers. We sort of hope there’s a Chinese Liam Neeson whose entire job is to track down stolen manhole covers and serve justice upon the kidnappers.
"Manhole: Under Cover ... Rated R."
To Hollywood, an art thief is the perfect anti-hero. They can be sophisticated connoisseurs of fine art while still moonlighting as a daring criminal. Additionally, it’s hard for the average audience member to feel too bad about some rich jerk getting his favorite painting stolen, so the crimes feel relatively victimless. That said, there are way too many movies featuring burglars of art, which is why we think it’s time for a new type of sexy, dangerous criminal ... a shrubbery thief.
For example, a few years ago, a criminal walked into a conservatory at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew during its opening hours, and walked out with a pygmy Rwandan waterlily. That may not sound like a big deal --- and you may think you’ve got, like, a hundred of those in your backyard -- but you’d be wrong. So, so wrong.
"You gonna smoke that, or ... No?"
The legal trade of ornamental plants such as Rwandan waterlilies is a more than $12 billion industry. That flower is only found in two, small locations in the entire world. While it’s hard for experts to put a true value on it, it can be worth thousands on the black market before it finds its way onto the back of some rich guy’s toilet.
Generally speaking, orchids and rare cacti attract the most attention from thieves. In England, just the cuttings of an orchid known as Lady's Slipper can be worth over $7000 to the right buyer. Thefts of the flower are so frequent, botanists usually raise the flowers in secret.
A plant’s worth is directly tied to how endangered it is. Traders (illicit and otherwise) of these plants will regularly check the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species database to determine how close a certain variety is to dying out. The closer to death, the higher the price, the more likely green-thumbed thieves will try their hand at a heist, and the closer we get to seeing our script, Ocean’s 14: Flower Power, on the big screen.
California tree nuts are some of the most highly sought after nuts in the world. The buying, selling, and stealing of deez nuts can be incredibly lucrative: Since 2013, nut highwaymen have made off with over $10 million worth.
"That's 12 cents. Where's the other $9,999,999.88?"
The problem has gotten so bad that some California counties have actually banned the sale of nuts until the harvest is complete, in an effort to stunt black market sales. When that doesn’t work, the state will deploy for-real agents known as "agricultural crimes detectives," who sound like the absolute last place CSI would turn for a spin-off.
A recent example of their cases involved over $85,000 worth of walnuts. It’s insane to think about how many nuts you’d have to grab to make that kind of dough, but as this article explains, a pound of walnuts can be worth over $2 for growers. One of the more notorious cases went like this:
A man named “Alex Hernandez” showed up at a walnut warehouse to pick up a delivery of nuts for a Canadian retailer. He was early, which seemed suspicious to the logistics director, but Alex had all the right papers and everything seemed to check out. An hour after that, Alex picked up another batch at a separate warehouse. None of those nuts ever made it into a Canuck’s mouth.
Pictured: A Canadian, making the most out of the reserve stock.
When Chad Parker, one of the aforementioned agricultural detectives, was assigned the case, he was blown away by the sophistication. The truck’s plate was registered to a different model of truck, and the driver’s license number belonged to a random woman. The phone number listed on the paperwork corresponded with a pre-paid cellphone listed in Miami that had only been activated a couple of days prior. Pulling off a successful heist requires an intricate understanding of the trucking business, competent identity theft and knowing how to hack computer security.
In another instance, thieves managed to get away with $450,000 in pistachios. When the police caught up to the driver, he’d already delivered the payload ... and had no idea he’d delivered stolen goods. That’s the kind of organization we’re talking about here. Even though few arrests have ever been made, there’s reason to believe all these crimes are connected to maybe just one, highly organized group.
And that's just nuts. HYOOOOOO!
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