WASHINGTON — When police in suburban Washington raided the home of a suspected drug dealer last fall, they found the cocaine all right, but they also found 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 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 24 arrests.
In West St. Paul, Minn., a man pleaded guilty to stealing more than $6,000 worth of the stuff from a Walmart.
In the Washington area, some CVS pharmacies have been attaching electronic antitheft tags to bottles.
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.
Unlike nasal decongestants, which can be used to make methamphetamine, Tide is generally used for its intended purpose after it is stolen, authorities and industry officials say. Many thieves sell 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 others that drug dealers urge 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.