January 5, 2005

Wal-Mart Stung in $1.5 Million Bar-Code Scam

By Evan Schuman, eWEEK

Updated: Police charge two Tennessee couples in a scheme to use bogus bar codes at hundreds of stores in 19 states.

In a scheme that leveraged a little technology but relied on inattentive cashiers, Tennessee authorities have arrested two couples on charges that they used bogus bar codes to steal at least $1.5 million from hundreds of stores—some belonging to Wal-Mart—in 19 states. The group is slated to appear in court Wednesday.

Although the accused are said to have spent a lot of time and effort organizing colleagues in various parts of the country, the technology portion of their scheme was quite simple. They are accused of visiting a retailer and purchasing a low-priced item. The group would then scan the bar codes and simply print out duplicate bar codes, said Thomas Dean, the assistant Sumner County (Tennessee) district attorney who is assigned to the case.

The accused—Michael Poore, 29, and Julie Marie Simmons, 35, also known as Julie Poore; and Dewey Howerton, 39, and Laura Howerton, 39—would then go back to the store, tape the duplicate bar code on a higher-priced item and purchase the more expensive item at the lower scanned price, Dean said in an eWEEK.com interview.

One of the accused, according to the police complaint, would then remove the bogus tag and try to return the item to the store for the full purchase price. Instead of cash, the defendants would often ask for gift cards, Dean said. "Wal-Mart will more quickly put it on a gift card than hand you cash," he said.

That's far more profitable than trying to pawn the products or unload them on eBay, said the case's lead investigator, Portland police Detective Don Hardin. "If you try and sell stolen property on the street, you'll only get a fraction of the price. With a refund or a gift card, Wal-Mart's giving full price."

Hardin cited one instance where the accused would switch the bar code from a pillowcase with a full comforter set, adding that it would have been difficult for an alert cashier to not have noticed. "Visually, they would be substantially different," he told eWEEK.com.

The accused sometimes opted for a cash return when they could provide a receipt. Hardin said the group used various tactics to come up with receipts; some thieves just look for rejected receipts lying around near the checkout lanes and search for ones with attractive items, he said.

The four defendants and others are accused of working stores belonging to Wal-Mart and two other major retail chains—which police refused to identify—in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Iowa.

Police said the accused struck at the stores' busiest times to make it more likely that cashiers would speed through the scanning process.

Authorities said that the defendants may have accomplices, but that they are believed to have done a lot of traveling themselves. Police will specifically argue, for example, that the group hit 68 different retail locations in a 46-day period, Hardin said.

The group is accused of "theft by various means" and, in this case, that means the bar-code fraud, the gift card fraud and "good ole shoplifting," Dean said.

Police cracked the case when a routine traffic stop found someone who told police that he knew of a large-scale operation to defraud Wal-Mart and could purchase Wal-Mart gift cards valued at $600 for $150 from a person matching Laura Howerton's description, Hardin said.

Some in the industry took note of the fact that it was apparently not any retail employee that caught the group, raising the question of how long the scam might have otherwise continued.

Although Wal-Mart's loss prevention personnel did not apparently detect these crimes when they happened, they were able to find "video of these people, surveillance tapes" after the fact, Dean and Hardin said.

"We can trace, for example, some of them making mushroom boat anchor purchases," Hardin said. "We have video of them making the purchases that we believe are fraudulent."

Dean said authorities are still trying to piece together how much was stolen, but said the $1.5 million figure cited "is fair, from what has turned up." Authorities have said that all of the defendants had prior convictions for theft and shoplifting charges at the targeted retailers.

Editor's Note: This story was updated to include information and comments from Detective Don Hardin.