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Why smash-and-grab thefts at pharmacies can be more dangerous for consumers

When it comes to resold baby food and over-the-counter medications, wasting your money on an ineffective product is the best-case scenario, one expert said.

Smash-and-grab robberies typically target goods like clothing, jewelry, accessories and electronics, all of which have high resale values. But when the thieves raid pharmacies, the stakes increase. 

Many of the items stolen from those vendors are regulated, such as over-the-counter medications and baby formula. If the items are then fenced — when buyers knowingly accept stolen goods to resell — quality standards that ensure efficacy and safety can no longer be guaranteed.

“If it has not been stored appropriately, it’s not going to work — so you’re wasting your money. That’s the best case, where it’s economic fraud from a crook,” said David Spangler, the senior vice president of legal, government affairs and policy for the Consumer Healthcare Products Association. “The worst case is it being stored in such a way that something is wrong with it or it was tampered with and you could suffer some kind of adverse harm that you should never have been exposed to.”

When licensed pharmacies and verified vendors sell over-the-counter medications and food products like baby formula, they are complying with certain federal regulations to ensure that the items are effective and safe to consume. They take care to handle and store them under specified conditions and pull items when they’re set to expire. When the items are stolen and resold, the standards and safeguards can no longer be guaranteed. 

“When a manufacturer or distributor sells things to a retailer, they know the precise conditions under which they’re stored,” Spangler said. “Not everything is going to be susceptible to heat or cold, but some things are. Take a nicotine patch — these are not expensive products, but that adhesive can melt if exposed to certain conditions. Then there are those products that are intentionally adulterated.”

Over the counter medications display in a store
Over-the-counter medications. Images)John Greim / LightRocket via Getty Images

Rich Rossman, the vice president of law enforcement for the National Coalition of Law Enforcement and Retail, has seen firsthand just how some of the stolen items are handled. 

“I’ve worked numerous investigations in South Florida. It’s not uncommon for these groups to start in the morning and go at it all day for a week at a time,” said Rossman, who is a sergeant with the Broward County Sheriff’s Office. “But they might not meet with their fence every day, so they keep [the stolen goods] in their car."

That means items could be subject to extreme heat or cold.

“Think about diabetic test strips, where people are relying on those for their health,” Rossman said. “It’s about more than the loss for retailers. It’s safety. You’re not just being part of the problem but also jeopardizing your health and safety by buying these items.”

You’re not just being part of the problem but also jeopardizing your health and safety by buying these items.

Experts agree that one of the reasons people steal such items is that there’s a robust market for them online. 

“It’s a huge problem,” said Jason Brewer, the executive vice president of communications for the Retail Industry Leaders Association. “It all comes back to the ease of reselling products online — that’s what has driven the increase we’re seeing. If at the end of the day you’re trying to put a dent in this problem, you have to make it harder to resell these products online.”

Brewer said marketplaces that allow third-party sellers like those on Facebook and Amazon are monitored but not thoroughly enough.

“Marketplaces aren’t even abiding by their own stated policies and taking products off that they claim they don’t sell,” Brewer said. “You can do a quick search for over-the-counter medications — they’re all over these marketplaces.”

Ashley Settle, a spokesperson for Facebook’s parent company, Meta, said the platform requires that products and services sold on the site comply with its policies, which include prohibiting the sale of stolen items. The company advises people who see items they think are stolen to report the listings on Meta's site or file police reports.

Amazon said it spent over $700 million and employed more than 10,000 people to prevent fraud and abuse in its online marketplace last year.

“Amazon does not allow third-party sellers to list stolen goods in our store, and we work closely with law enforcement, retailers and brands to stop bad actors and hold them accountable, including withholding funds, terminating accounts, and making law enforcement referrals,” Amazon spokesperson Mary Kate McCarthy said in a statement.

Spangler said many manufacturers are also monitoring the marketplaces to prevent the sale of illicit or counterfeit goods. But it’s a massive undertaking that can be difficult even with the right teams. 

“Somebody can set up a virtual storefront online, sell for a couple days and then be off with another name. Marketplaces are not always going to be able to move and take items down in real time,” he said. 

Legislative efforts are in motion to try to curtail the sale of such potentially dangerous items. 

The Stopping Harmful Offers on Platforms by Screening Against Fakes in E-commerce Act, or SHOP SAFE, aims to prevent the sale of counterfeit goods by providing incentives for platforms to screen and vet sellers and products, penalize repeat offenders and provide consumers with relevant information.

The CEOs of 20 retailers, including Rite Aid Corp., CVS Health and the Walgreens Boots Alliance, signed a letter Thursday asking Congress to pass the Integrity, Notification and Fairness in Online Retail Marketplaces for Consumers Act, or INFORM Consumers

It would require online marketplaces to authenticate the identities of “high-volume third-party sellers” to deter the sale of stolen and counterfeit goods and “prevent organized retail crime rings from stealing items from stores to resell those items in bulk online.” The act would also allow consumers to see basic identification and contact information for the third-party sellers. 

“Criminals are capitalizing on the anonymity of the internet and the failure of certain marketplaces to verify their sellers,” the letter says. “There is no simple answer to stopping organized retail crime or the sale of counterfeits — but key to stemming the tide of these growing problems is transparency.”

Brewer and Spangler urged consumers looking to stay safe to buy only from known retailers. 

“When it comes to over-the-counter medication or baby products and food, consumers should avoid third-party marketplaces altogether. Products could be counterfeit, stolen, expired or tampered with,” Spangler said. “Buyer beware: If you think you’re getting a great deal on over-the-counter medication from a marketplace, you’re getting something that’s either stolen or counterfeit.”