Two New Jersey residents are facing criminal charges after allegedly stealing almost $13,000 worth of merchandise ordered on Lowe’s Cos. Inc.’s website.
The couple also tried to fraudulently obtain $258,068.01 worth of goods from Lowes.com but were not able to complete the transactions, according to the Brick Township (N.J.) Police Department, which arrested the pair, a husband and wife, earlier this month.
Lowe’s Organized Retail Crime division alerted the Brick Township police of the fraudulent activity. The police, with assistance from the Ocean County prosecutor’s office Special Investigations Unit, went to the couple’s home on Aug. 3 and discovered the merchandise. The house looked more like a home-improvement supplies warehouse than a home, says a spokesman for the Ocean County prosecutor’s office.
Romela Velazquez allegedly “exploited a weakness” on Lowes.com multiple times this year, placing several orders on the e-commerce site without paying for the products, and had the merchandise shipped to her home, according to the prosecutor’s office. Velazquez then allegedly attempted to sell the new merchandise on a Facebook “Buy and Sell” group for less than half of the products’ original prices.
Romela Velazquez is charged with computer criminal activity for accessing a computer system with the purpose to defraud, theft by deception for attempting to obtain merchandise totaling approximately $258,068.01 and theft by deception for the receipt of approximately $12,971.23 worth of goods without payment, according to the prosecutor’s office. Her husband, Kimy Velazquez, is charged with receipt of stolen property and fencing, officials say.
Jef Henninger, the lawyer representing Romela Velasquez, says anything she obtained from Lowes.com was because she is good at finding deals and did not involve computer hacking.
Even if consumers benefit from a retailer’s error, it’s not criminal, he says. “I found a jar of tomato sauce on sale for 99 cents, and right above it was a coupon for 50 cents off, and the store doubles coupons. I got it for free and I cleaned them out [of the sauce]. That’s not criminal,” Henninger tells Internet Retailer. “It’s going to take time for prosecutors to finish their investigation, and at some point I think we should have a meeting to go through all this. How is any of this criminal? She just took advantage of deals. My client is a 23-year-old mother who has been in the country a few years and has no technical education. She’s the farthest thing from a computer hacker,” he says.
Lowe’s says its e-commerce site was not hacked. “There was no compromise of Lowe’s online systems and, in 2016, we were able to put in place measures to prevent this type of activity,” a Lowe’s spokeswoman says in an email. She declined to elaborate further on those prevention measures.
Further details about how the suspects committed the fraud and how Lowe’s discovered it are not being released because it is an ongoing investigation, the spokesman for the prosecutor’s office says. Officials say they do not want to give other criminals insight into how to replicate the activity.
Police say they found stolen merchandise from other retailers, including multiple UGG pairs of footwear and approximately $2,500 worth of Victoria Secret underwear, when they searched the Velasquez’s residence. UGG and Victoria’s Secret did not respond to requests for comment.
Al Pascual, senior vice president, research director, Javelin Strategy & Research LLC, says because the suspects had goods from other retailers, they likely used the same techniques to obtain merchandise from each site.
“It would make sense that they would leverage the same modus operandi, which could include taking advantage of coupon codes or even common vulnerabilities in the e-commerce platforms being used,” Pascual says.
Lowe’s may have discovered the fraudulent behavior via social media, as checking these channels for fraud may be routine, or the transaction could have been flagged if there was a discrepancy with shipment and payment activity, he says.
“Regardless, this type of story only substantiates the notion that criminals will seek out novel means of committing theft and that retailers cannot resign themselves to thinking that monitoring payments alone is sufficient for stamping out fraud,” Pascual says.
The prosecutor’s office says officials collected the merchandise from the residence and filled an 18-foot trailer in order to remove it from the property and store it as evidence. Some of the bigger-ticket items recovered new, in-box, or with their tags still on them, included:
- Stainless steel Weber grill
- Aluminum gazebo
- Honda lawnmower
- LG portable air conditioner
- Dewalt power washer
- 70” Vizio LED smart TV
- Sony stereo surround sound system with 4 speakers
- Nikon D5000 camera
- Three Dyson ball vacuum cleaners
- Multiple boxes of furniture (not assembled)
Lowe’s is No. 25 in the Internet Retailer 2017 Top 500.