Washington area thieves turn laundry detergent into ‘liquid gold’

Petula Dvorak
Columnist March 19, 2012

It feels new somehow, this kind of desperation.

“I’ve never seen it like this before, only in the last few months,” said Randy Nkrumah, a manager at a CVS on Capitol Hill, my neighborhood drugstore, where the Tide laundry detergent has anti-theft tags clipped to the handles.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

No one’s looking for Cheer. And they don’t want Gain.

Tide is what thieves are stealing. Which has to be the ultimate marketing coup for Procter & Gamble, right?

Sometimes the same guy will snag a dozen bottles of Tide in one week, taking one or two a day and running out the door with them, a clerk at the Capitol Hill store said.


A bottle of Tide laundry detergent complete with anti-theft device sits on the shelf at the CVS drugstore on 12th Street SE in Washington. Thieves have been targeting the detergent, which is being resold on the street. Narcotics officers in Prince George's County said they've discovered drug dealers are accepting Tide as payment. (Petula Dvorak/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Tide is hot. But other stuff is getting stolen as well. Have you noticed the weird deodorant cases at many stores? Or those Pavlovian-experiment razor dispensers?

What does this say about the times we live in? Are we veering toward a “Hunger Games” existence, where the commoners traffic in Lafayette Square squirrel meat while a sumptuous state dinner is enjoyed by the 1 percent on the other side of the fence?

Homicide rates are dropping nationwide. Meanwhile, property crimes are skyrocketing.

D.C. police report that robberies have soared by 30 percent this year. It’s not even this bad in New York or Philly.

Commuters on the Metro are warned that their mobile phones might be snatched out of their hands. Shoes, jackets and iPads are stolen along with wallets during a holdup. In the suburbs, police have seen an increase in thieves taking copper — wiring, tubing and even the connectors inside HVAC systems — at an alarming rate. Watch out for your gas! Bandits are drilling holes in your fuel tank and draining it in your driveway as you sleep. Then, they rip out the catalytic converter for the trace amount of platinum inside.

Monday morning, after dropping my son off at his D.C. school, I walked past a pretty new silver Corvette that was tilting and perched on a rock and some bricks, all four wheels gone, the lug nuts left on the street.

“Happened last night,” a dog walker told me as she passed.

For any follower of James Q. Wilson, this can be a portent of worse times ahead.

The co-author of the “Broken Windows” theory, Wilson, who died this month, said “public order is a fragile thing, and if you don’t fix the first broken window, soon all the windows will be broken.”

Just outside the Capitol Hill drugstore, one of the CVS clerks I talked to was approached by a man offering to sell her Dove soap at a really good price. Soap she watched him steal just hours earlier.

“Yes, they like the Dove body wash,” Nkrumah, her manager, said, shrugging and putting his hands up in the air. “It’s easy to sell.”

Things are so bad, the CVS in downtown Silver Spring had to close its side entrance this weekend when someone stealing several bottles of Tide pulled a knife on a clerk, then slipped out the side door.

“It’s crazy,” said Jamal, one of the clerks at that store, which has almost no Tide or Dove soap left on its shelves. “Every day, they steal whatever they can carry and run.”

What do they do with all the detergent? Tide, which is apparently coveted because it’s pretty expensive at about $20 for a 100-ounce jug, gets sold to neighborhood mom-and-pop stores, on street corners and in parking lots. Like the trench-coat guy who once sold stolen watches, this is now happening with household goods. A $20 bottle of Tide can go for $5. Dove soap? $1.

The weird trend became a national story last week when the detergent crime wave was linked to a Prince George’s County drug bust. A dope dealer had cocaine and about 20 bottles of Tide stashed in his house, police said.

“I understand that some of those stealing the Tide were using it in trade for drugs,” said Cpl. Henry Tippett, a spokesman for the Prince George’s police. “In our special enforcement division, they actually call it liquid gold.”

The benefits to criminals are clear. You can’t trace the detergent, and there’s nothing illegal about being caught with a trunk full of soap.

It took Prince George’s police a few months to track down the four guys who were going to Safeways across the county, loading up shopping carts with Tide, then racing the carts out to the curb, unloading and speeding away.

Shoplifting is nothing new, for sure. But the cost to retailers has increased by several billion dollars in the past year, according to the National Retail Federation.

“It’s not like we’re in the Great Depression or anything,” the Capitol Hill CVS clerk said. “Are things really that bad?”

Apparently, yes.

To read previous columns by Petula Dvorak, go to washingtonpost.com/
dvorak
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