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NYC’s Great Ice Cream Crime Craze of 2016

Summer’s coolest criminal enterprise. Can the thieves be stopped?

Your ice cream might be hot, and I don’t mean its temperature. (Photo: Rene Schwietzke/CC BY-2.0)

It’s happening again: the ice cream bandits are hitting New York City’s pharmacies.

For months now, the New York City police have waged war on frozen dairy bandits, who shoplift pints of ice cream from the city’s chain pharmacies in order to resell the products to neighborhood corner stores—locally referred to as bodegas— pocketing the proceeds. According to a report in the New York Post, police hoped a February crackdown would make a major dent in the practice; unfortunately, the raids have continued, with a $450 March Haagen-Daz grab and an April 15th heist lifting 148 pints of ice cream from the CVS at West 23rd St. and 10th Ave. The practice is highly appealing for those interested in criminal enterprise, according to a police source who spoke to the Post, “They’re selling them for 10 cents on the dollar, so it’s a good deal for the bodega and for the seller.” Plus, there’s free ice cream involved, presumably.

The heists are a fairly elaborate affair. CVS manager Frank Sarpong explained the strategy to the Post:

“They look to see if the employees are distracted or ask for help, and then they go back there and take it,” he told The Post. “They don’t take it all, but they don’t leave much.

“They don’t want to come in with a big, huge bag, so they do it little by little over the course of an hour,” he added.

Flipping stolen retail goods at bodegas isn’t a practice limited to frozen treats; The Huffington Post has reported on the practice of buying cigarettes at low cost in the southern U.S., then selling them at a profit to NYC bodegas, where cigarettes are among the highest-priced in the country. As HuffPo explains, “In places like Virginia, North Carolina and Delaware, they’ll buy cartons containing 10 packs of cigarettes for around $48 a pop, then come back to New York, where local stores will buy them around $55.” That works out to about $5.50 a pack, which the bodegas can turn around a sell for $8, or even $13 to $14—the standard price for a pack of cigarettes in NYC.

And it isn’t just economically-minded criminals getting in on the action. A February article in Crain’s noted that bodegas frequently purchase beer through retailers like Costco rather than wholesale distributors; bodegas generally stock smaller quantities than larger retailers, and buying just a few cases from a wholesaler can be expensive. According to the State Liquor Authority’s general counsel, Jacqueline Fung, bodegas are fined thousands of dollars for the practice “pretty regularly.” In an op-ed for the New York Daily News, David Schwartz argued that fining the bodegas rather than the big-box retailers selling to them represents an unfair penalty on small business owners.

So far, the NYPD has struggled to identify the bodegas buying the pilfered ice cream, making the thefts difficult to prevent. And with ice cream season well underway, most of the evidence is likely to be eaten.