Home Depot lost $5.5 million by issuing $900 refunds for a single purchase more than 6,000 times: prosecutors

CHICAGO — Two Home Depot stores in Chicago were defrauded of $5.5 million by scammers who collected $900 credits more than 6,000 times for a single purchase made three years ago, prosecutors said Wednesday.

Officials said the scam began in March 2020 when someone made a purchase of more than $6,000 from the home improvement chain’s 2570 North Elston location. Days later, someone returned to the store and said the purchase was for a tax-exempt church. A store employee accepted the tax-exempt documents and issued the representative a $900 gift card for the tax value, Assistant State’s Attorney Sarah Dale-Schmidt said yesterday.

She said people returned to Home Depot with the same receipt 15 more times that year, receiving $900 gift cards each time. In 2021, the company issued $900 gift cards another 33 times for the same purchase.

Last year, 1,372 gift cards were issued for $900 “tax credits” on the same purchase.

And, as of mid-May, Home Depot issued $900 gift cards for the exact same receipt 3,200 times this year, Dale-Schmidt said.

The Home Depot at 2570 North Elston. | Google

Cashiers scanned the receipt bar code from a fraudster’s phone each time, manually entered the tax exemption information, then cut a gift card for the difference. Some cashiers issued multiple gift cards for the same purchase in one sitting.

In total, the company lost $5.5 million — $900 at a time. In addition to the Elston location, the fraud was also carried out at the chain’s 1300 South Clinton store, according to officials.

The company’s corporate retail crime investigator contacted the Chicago Police Department’s Organized Retail Crime Task Force about the scam on May 5.

On Wednesday, prosecutors said Lamont Thompson, 49, was one of the “customers” who presented the three-year-old receipt to receive $900 gift cards after Home Depot alerted Chicago police. Dale-Schmidt said Thompson received ten gift cards worth $9,000 on May 10, another 39 cards worth $35,100 during two sessions on May 12, and three cards worth $2,700 on Monday.

When police arrested Thompson on Tuesday, he had 33 Home Depot gift cards worth $29,700 “on his person,” Dale-Schmit alleged. He is charged with four counts of felony retail theft and operating a continuing financial crime enterprise.

Two Home Depot cashiers, Christiana Westbrooks, 38, and Sharon Dwyer, 46, were charged with theft on Wednesday. Each had been working for the company for about two years.

Prosecutors said Westrooks used her unique teller code to issue $900 gift cards on the same receipt more than 1,000 times since January 1. She was carrying $2,980 in cash when police arrested her, Dale-Schmidt said, and she admitted to receiving $100 for every gift card she issued.

Dwyer allegedly issued more than 1,500 of the cards worth a total of $1.3 million since January 1. Dale-Schmidt said Dwyer received $30 for every gift card she issued during the scam. In addition to giving cards to scammers who posed as customers, Dwyer sometimes scanned an image of the 2020 receipt from her own phone and issued $900 gift cards to herself, Dale-Schmidt said. Dwyer was carrying $4,420 in cash when cops arrested her.

Attorneys for Thompson, Dwyer, and Westbrooks argued that the scam was in operation long before the trio allegedly became involved. Judge Kelly McCarthy released all three defendants on their own recognizance.

Officials did not explain how the fraudulently issued gift cards were converted to cash, nor did they say if additional arrests were expected.

Exactly how the scheme was able to operate for three years, generating thousands of $900 gift cards from a single $6,000 receipt, is unclear.

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