Polk County deputies arrested eight suspects who, over the course of four months, committed 34 thefts stealing thousands of dollars' worth of merchandise from Lakeland retail stores.
Between April and September, the group stole approximately $6,700 from Lowes, Home Depot, Walmart and JC Penney.
The leader of the group and three others were charged with racketeering. In all, the eight suspects were charged with several felonies and misdemeanors.
According to their affidavits, the "ringleader" of the organized group was 46-year-old Tina Morrison of Lakeland.
The group entering the stores in the garden or automotive sections, putting items (mostly outdoor/sporting goods and tools) in shopping carts, and taking them to the return counters for gift cards in exchange for the fake "returns."
According to deputies, they would then use the fraudulently-obtained gift cards to purchase merchandise and pawn that merchandise for cash at various pawn stores. Each theft, use of the gift card, and pawn transaction often occurred within a one-hour time frame.
During each return, the suspects provided the store personnel with personal identification (driver's licenses). During each pawn transaction, the suspects provided pawnbrokers with fingerprints and signatures.
The names and charges of all eight suspects, mugshots, and store surveillance video will be released by Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd at 10:00 a.m. on Friday.