When police in suburban Washington raided the home of a suspected drug dealer last fall, they found the cocaine, all right, but also something unusual on the man's shelves: nearly 20 large bottles of liquid Tide laundry detergent.
It turns out his customers were paying for drugs not with cash but with stolen Tide, police said.
Tide has become a hot commodity among thieves at supermarkets and drugstores in at least some parts of the country.
For a variety of reasons, the detergent in the familiar flame-orange bottle is well-suited for resale on the black market: Everybody needs laundry detergent, and Tide is the nation's most popular brand. It's expensive, selling for up to $20 for a large bottle at stores. And it doesn't spoil.
One Safeway supermarket in Prince George's County, Md., was losing thousands of dollars' worth of Tide a week before police made more than two dozen arrests. In West St. Paul, Minn., a man pleaded guilty to stealing more than $6,000 worth of the stuff from a Walmart and was sentenced to 90 days in jail. Police in Newport News, Va., and other cities around the country have reported a spike in thefts.
In the Washington area, some CVS pharmacies have been attaching electronic anti-theft tags to bottles. One CVS in Washington's well-to-do Dupont Circle neighborhood keeps Tide locked up behind glass.
Charlene Holton, a clerk at a busy, 24-hour CVS in northwest Washington, has seen too many Tide thefts to count.
"It's a hot item! It's gotten out of hand," Holton said. "They usually take maybe four, whatever they can carry out the door. We have to fight for that. It's rough!"
The store has put electronic tags on its Tide, but that doesn't stop the thieves, Holton said. They run out of the store with the detergent and remove the tags later with wire cutters.
It's not clear how new the Tide theft phenomenon is, but organized theft has been a growing problem for U.S. retailers, costing them $3.53 billion in 2010, according to the National Retail Federation. Other popular items for thieves include baby formula, razor blades and over-the-counter medication.
"We've seen organized retail crime, or the theft of goods for profit, resale or barter, for many years now," said Joseph LaRocca, senior adviser on asset protection for the NRF. LaRocca said that Tide had not shown up previously on lists of the most commonly targeted items, but that several retailers told him this week it has been a problem.
Robert McCrie, a professor of security management at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said Tide is an ideal target for thieves, in part because high demand makes it easy to resell. The flat economy is a factor, as is the relatively low risk to criminals, he said.
"The idea of somebody making significant money as a drug pusher has been pretty much debunked on the streets. It's risky and really low-profit," he said. "Selling something like this represents little risk of physical danger."
Unlike nasal decongestants, which can be used to make methamphetamine, laundry detergent is generally used for its intended purpose after it is stolen, authorities and industry officials say. Many thieves are selling it on the street themselves at cut-rate prices, sometimes outside coin-operated laundries.
In Prince George's County, police said they learned from informants, undercover officers and other sources that drug dealers encourage their customers to pay with shoplifted Tide instead of cash.
"I'm out of marijuana right now, but when I get re-upped I'll hook you up if you can get me 15 bottles of Tide," one dealer was quoted as telling an informant, according to police.
The drug dealers then often resell the detergent to unscrupulous retailers such as corner stores, barbershops, even a nail salon. Everybody gets something out of the arrangement: the addict, who doesn't have to scrounge up cash; the dealer, who can double or triple his profit on the drugs; and the retailer, who can acquire Tide for less than wholesale.
Tide shoplifters often work quickly.
Surveillance videos from a Safeway in Bowie, Md., showed crews of two or three people entering the store, loading up shopping carts and rushing outside, where they loaded the detergent into a waiting car. Police made nearly 30 arrests when they broke up the theft ring last fall.
Employees at a Duane Reade drugstore inside New York City's Penn Station said that a few weeks ago, a man walked in with a suitcase and filled it up with bottles of Tide. He was caught on a security camera and detained.
Several retailers were tightlipped about the problem. A Safeway spokesman said only that Tide thefts aren't unique to the chain's stores. A Target representative said the company is aware of the issue and encouraging stores to be vigilant.
"Theft of Tide is not a new issue in the retail industry," said CVS spokeswoman Carolyn Castel.
The maker of Tide, Procter & Gamble, sounded baffled about why the brand has gotten so much attention from thieves.
"We don't have any insight as to why this has apparently happened," P&G spokeswoman Sarah Pasquinucci said in an email, "but if so it is unfortunate."
AP Retail Writer Mae Anderson in New York and Associated Press writers Verena Dobnik in New York, Jessica Gresko in Washington, Steve Karnowski in Minneapolis and Brock Vergakis in Norfolk, Va., contributed to this report.
Follow Ben Nuckols on Twitter at http://twitter.com/APBenNuckols.