BUFFALO, N.Y. — The man who walked into a T.

J. Maxx store in Amherst, New York, one summer morning in 2022 was no ordinary shoplifter. He was Chester Culler, 45, also known by about 50 other aliases, a master retail thief who stole items and used a devious refund scheme to steal cash from stores in more than 30 different states.

His specialty was walking into stores, filling a shopping cart with items from the shelves, taking those items to a service counter and asking for a refund. Because certain stores allowed people to return items without a receipt, the scam often worked. U.

S. Homeland Security Investigations agents said Culler stole more than $416,000 through refund fraud committed at stores at least 800 times between 2020 and this year. Authorities said Culler is just one part of an army of professional shoplifters wreaking havoc on retailers all over the United States, helping to raise prices for law-abiding customers and causing some stores to go out of business.

Federal agents say organized retail crime rings cost the national economy an estimated $127.5 billion a year, and the number keeps rising. “Retailers are seeing unprecedented levels of theft .

.. and the situation is only becoming more dire,” said David Johnston, vice president for asset protection at the National Retail Federation.

“If people had any idea how rampant it is, they would be shocked,” said Lt. Emil DeVincentis of the Cheektowaga Police Special Investigations Bureau in New York. “We�.

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