On March 3, the Portland Police Bureau set up a sting. The mark, Pavel Kuzik, was a seasoned criminal who had already been in trouble several times for theft and deceit—he even showed up to meet undercover officers in a stolen car. What was the alleged crime that led the cops to target the 25-year-old? Stealing Legos from Fred Meyer, then reselling them online.
"Lego thief" sounds like an occupation that only exists in crowdfunded Zach Braff movies, but stealing the surprisingly pricey colored blocks is a lucrative trade according to Portland Police Sergeant Peter Simpson.
"There's a 'black' or secondary market for everything, especially things of value," he told me. "Legos are a hot item due to their popularity and relative cost from retail markets. Virtually untraceable––no serial numbers––and easily sold."
Authorities say that boosting crews complete with drivers, lookouts, pickers, and fences have become increasingly common across the country since the beginning of the Great Recession. According to the National Retail Federation, 30 states have passed laws regarding organized retail crime (ORC) since 2008. Though Legos aren't mentioned in the group's most recent report, anecdotal evidence suggests that they're a popular choice with professional-level shoplifters.
For instance, this past June, a five-person team was arrested in San Diego for allegedly taking more than $15,000 worth of toys, mostly Legos. In 2014, Phoenix cops busted an even bigger ring and seized $200,000 of illicit Legos. There's also Gloria Haas, a Long Island woman who was accused that same year of taking $59,000 worth of Legos from a storage unit. This December, a 43-year-old was caught on camera stealing a $450 R2D2 Lego replica, in Beaverton, Oregon, and one person even bashed in a Vancouver, Canada, store window to grab a single box of the plastic bricks.
As phrases like "$450 R2D2 Lego replica" suggest, these products can be extremely expensive, and they're not usually guarded by stores in the same way that electronics are. According to Tommy Williamson, who runs the website bricknerd.com, while Legos have never been cheap, they've become even pricier in the past 15 years. He explained to me that after a downturn in the late 90s, Lego embraced licensing deals that led to sets from the Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Frozen universes appearing on shelves. Those products are the ones that tend to be the most expensive, and therefore the most attractive to criminals. For example, one called the Ultimate Collector's Millennium Falcon goes for almost $4,000. (Williamson pointed to a handful of articles from December that claimed Lego was more valuable than gold for the value of that set going up.)
He also pointed out that another prevalent Lego crime is for people to steal individual pieces and plastic people from sets and then return the sets to the store. The parts are then sold on bricklink.com, which is a site frequented by collectors and mega fans.
"We consider those people scumbags," Williamson said of the thieves. "Those people who are doing that tend to have large collections and stores to fund their hobbies, but they give us a bad name. We know the people doing this tend to be fans, but they're also fans of the dark side."
A spokesperson for Lego did not immediately return a request for comment.
Meanwhile, police haven't indicated if they think Kuzik was operating alone or as part of a ring. No new details about his case will be released until the investigation is over, according to a spokesperson for the Multnomah County District Attorney's Office. However, Lego crime just seems like a natural extension of his rap sheet, which also includes burglary, identity theft, and stealing from a Target store. For someone like that, ripping off Lego sets may have been a racket too profitable to pass up.
"I would not say that we have a large black market for plastic bricks," says Peter Simpson, the Portland cop. "But like in any big city, there are always people willing to buy discounted goods without asking any questions."
Follow Allie Conti on Twitter.